Tassajara fire, a year later

Last year in June, a large number of fires, all started by lightning, were burning all over California. This included several devastating fires in the Los Padres National Forest. The area is rugged, and the steep mountains mad access difficult, so the fires were mostly allowed to run their cause. Unfortunately, Tassajara was right in the middle.

For several weeks last summer, those of us who know and love Tassajara watched things unfold. First the residents prepared by adding sprinklers, fed by the creek, to the roofs of all buildings. Then additional pumps and fire hoses were purchases. Still, in the end, the fires were deemed to dangerous and evacuations started. Everyone left, except for five monks (including the abbot and the directory of Tassajara), who turned around at the top of the ridge when they were told they would not be allowed back in. The monks fought small burns with the fire hoses and refueled the pumps that kept the roofs wet, saving Tassajara.
When we returned this year, we found the landscape completely changed.

Where dense forest had been, we saw black branches with a shimmering of green and white.

Trees are resprouting from the bottom, but much of the green shimmer is a Phacelia that requires smoke to germinate (I believe it's Phacelia cicutaria -- carterpillar phacelia -- but I'm not quite sure). Imagine, the seeds might lie dormant for twenty years, and then thousands of flowers open, all in one glorious spring. Far fewer flowers the next year, and even less the year after. The back to sleep.

And everywhere, this contrast. Stark burnt branches.

And an amazing abundance of Calochortus albus (globe lilies). Usually, I'm trilled to see one, now, there were twenty in one spot.

Black branches, some of them sprouting green. The grandfather oak along the way down to Tassajara was miraculously bringing forth new branches. Yet other trees stood witness of the devastation.

Change everywhere. More mosquitos than usual at Tassajara because many of the bats had fled or been killed. But also an abundance of birds, enjoying the mosquitos and finding the best nesting holes in the green trees close to the creek.

I'm closing the post with a special photo Mr. Mouse took on a hike he took while I worked. Here's a Papaver californica (Fire poppy).

Bright orange, and different from the regular California poppy in flower, seedhead, and leaves. A special treat brought by the fire, which has been teaching change in so many ways.


You hate to say goodbye to beloved old plants but the new plants begin to make up for it. I'm not sure I've ever been to a post-burn location at the right time to see the fire poppies blooming--Mr Mouse did good with the picture! Their pods look lots more like traditional oriental poppy pods, so maybe that's part of why they're the same genus.

After the recent fires in Australia there've been all sorts of discussions of whether the strategy of having people stay to defend their property should be discontinued. In this case it seems to have made the difference.
ryan said…
I've never seen a fire poppy. They look great. And so many globe lillies. Very cool.
Tatyana said…
I wish the fires would stop torturing California...
Katie said…
Very interesting take on those fires we had last year. It is interesting to see the hills spring to life again.
Barbara E said…
I know someone whose house burnt in a fire a few years ago in the hills above Claremont. He made a project of taking pictures of the wildflowers that followed.It helped him heal. Still the pattern of fire today is not natural and if they occur during an unnatural time of the year and too frequently, the conditions are right for weeds to take the place of pristine chaparral and scrub. Richard Halsey has been studying this for years and has a great website: www.californiachaparral.com

Great to see your pictures!
It's fascinating to see the progress, what plants thrive and which die. Wildfires must be so scary.
Town Mouse said…
Actually, many of the fires last year (including the 3 fires around Tassajara) were caused by lightning. There's a fire cycle of about 20 years in Los Padres--so say the tree rings. The last fire was in 79, so this fire was actually late.
That said, many other fires are caused by humans. Ironically, those often start close to human habitation and cause great suffering. Being fire safe is critical, but I also advocate against sprawl. It's complicated.
Michelle said…
What a lot of people don't realize is that fire was part of the natural cycle in California. The difference now is human interference. We've been so good at supressing fires that we now have a dangerous amount of flammable growth - growth that in the past was kept in check by periodic fires. Fires that burn now are more fierce because of all that extra fuel.

At times last summer I could see the flames of the back fires in the Los Padres from my garden. The smoke was so thick at times that I couldn't see anything a half mile awya. Scary stuff, that's why I've been spending quality time with my string trimmer lately - my annual whacking of the (mostly european invader) dry grasses that cover the hillside around my flammable home.