The fire followers are glorious. What can I say except that? I’ve not seen Phacelia grandiflora since I pressed it in my college botany class. I was fortunate to be collecting the Spring after a Malibu fire, and here it is again, in the San Gabriel Mountains. Phacelia grandiflora and the other fire followers probably haven’t bloomed here for over 50 years as the last recorded fire was in 1959 in western Altadena.
I’ve seen the pictures and videos, and went on a short hike into the forest myself. It’s hard not to feel devastated, hard not to cry for the burned over mountains and lost trails. It’s hard not to feel like it is gone “forever.” It’s hard not to worry about the deer and put out food for the birds. I’ve heard people say it will be “generations” before the forest is like it was. I’ve also heard people say we need to reseed and replant for a “new, better forest.”
First of all, the forest is not dead. Chaparral plants have a few tricks they have evolved to deal with fire – they either sprout from seeds that have been dormant in the soil waiting for a fire to give them the right conditions, like poppies and sages, or they store enough energy to resprout from underground roots and stems, like toyon, sumac, and wild cucumber. It might surprise some people, used to reading the expiration dates on seed packages, to know that the seeds of chaparral plants actually survive a very long time in the soil. Some, like whispering bells, fire poppies, and many lupines, are even called “fire followers” because they only show up after a fire. Their seeds might have waited decades for this one chance to bloom.
Reseeding in chaparral is a waste of time and money.
After the 1993 fires, the Forest Service refused to seed the lands burned by the Green Meadow fire but LA County Forestry Division insisted on seeding within the Old Topanga fire boundaries. As the two areas were very similar in all ways, it was simple to count the plants that were present the following spring to see if the seeding (with almost all non-native plants) had any effect on recovery. In the end, the only difference detected between the two areas was the higher prevalence of non-native weeds within the Old Topanga burn (Jon Keeley, 1996). Seeding was indeed a waste of time and money.
Along with the misguided calls to seed the hillsides and the perennial calls to ramp up burns in the backcountry to create “slow burning” chaparral (which is also a misconception), some have been suggesting that we should use this as an opportunity to replant a new and better Angeles National Forest.
The Los Angeles Times has been furthering some of these misconceptions through its reporting on the Station Fire. This last week the Los Angeles Times published a letter from TreePeople founder Andy Lipkis suggesting that he wanted us all to plant trees in the forest. It turns out that our own LA Times mangled his letter by cutting out a crucial paragraph in which Andy said:
“Our hope is that in large portions of the forest a natural and healthier chaparral and pine forest can re-sprout without human help. Where that is not possible, the Forest Service will prescribe the restoration strategies and timeline consistent with fire ecology.”
We will need to pay attention to the fire breaks that were cut for many miles through the forests. Scraped of the plants that used to catch the rainfall and hold the soil in place, these cuts will be additional sources of slope failure, mud slides, and easy places for invasive plants to take hold.
Those who want to do something to help the wildlands recover would do best to join in local habitat restoration efforts in a park or public land near you. Look for volunteer opportunities with organizations that have experience in habitat restoration. Invasive plant control projects are especially helpful because removing invasive exotics from these areas protects the landscape from future ignitions. And if you must plant a tree, be sure the seeds used for the effort were sourced from the watershed in which you are planting. When it comes to restoration, plants need not just be native, but need to be native to and sourced from the watershed for highest survivability.
Good thing chaparral has the wisdom to repair itself. When it comes to restoring chaparral, as the Buddhists say, “Don’t just do something, sit there.”