A few weeks ago, I pulled off the 210 freeway onto La Tuna Canyon Road to take in the devastation of the recent fire that engulfed and scorched more than 7,000 acres. Having been extinguished only a couple weeks before, the land was still raw with soot and ash. I parked at a trailhead, ignored the “Closed” signs, and wandered into an otherworldly canyon landscape.
When fires strike California it can feel apocalyptic. The contaminated sky changes to an eerie orange glow along the mountains. I could see the La Tuna Canyon Fire from my front porch for the first few nights, looming like Mordor in the distance. I woke up several times to check on it in the night, thinking about the fatigued firefighters, and the tragic loss of ecosystem. I tried to reason through my emotional response, telling myself that every region has its natural disasters, rationalizing wildfires as part of California’s natural systems. But is that still true?
The ground was black, except in areas where ash had swirled and gathered at the base of the canyon, mimicking snow. There were still oaks standing, with burnt brown leaves, and sycamores with white trunks and charred limbs. With the brush burned away, litter, old bottles, and pull-tab beer cans were exposed on the ground. The landscape was eerily silent except for the occasional scrub jay, and the twinkling of pebbles tumbling down the barren hillsides. How and when does life return to this landscape?
Understanding the natural history of wildfires in comparison to modern day occurrences, there arises a concern that the increased frequency is preventing native ecosystems from rebounding, inviting invasive plants to take over. I am curious to know more about how the land regenerates: which plants sprout first, which trees can survive being charred, and when do the critters return? La Tuna Canyon last burned in 1955. Will it be another 60 years until the tree canopy is as dense as it was a few months ago before the fire?
I hope to return to this site and repeatedly photograph it to document the changes. Also, the Theodore Payne Foundation is hosting a series of talks geared towards landscapes after the fire. I am especially interested in hearing insights from the perspective of the California Chaparral Institute, to better understand how we as stewards of the land can support the natural ecosystems that make California so beautiful.