Goodbye, Pines

2002 Pines fire destroyed 300-year-old sugar pines in Cuyamacas

Sally Snipes: "I was in a funk for six months because of the black. Everything was black."
  • Sally Snipes: "I was in a funk for six months because of the black. Everything was black."
  • Image by Joe Klein

Wait six months. That's the message native vegetation experts seek to convey to backcountry landowners itching to replant and reseed the scorched shrubs and wildflowers and cut down the blackened trees on their properties. "That vegetation is going to grow back," says Vincent Lazaneo, horticulture advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension. "There is no question that it is going to occur. It's just a matter of time what type of vegetation and how fast."

Sally Snipes understands the urge to do something about the dreary black landscape. In August of 2002, the Pines fire blew through the property she inhabits in the San Felipe Valley below the north slope of Volcan Mountain. "It was just toast," she says of the 69 acres studded with live oaks and sumacs next to San Felipe creek. "I was in a funk for six months because of the black. Everything was black."

The shrubs that didn't burn on Snipes's property were reduced to scorched sticks. Thirty-seven smoking holes full of snow-white ash marked the spots where live oaks had once stood. The oaks still standing were completely blackened. The trunks of some had been hollowed out by the fire. What leaves still remained on the trees were tan-colored and dead.

A self-described gardening nut -- she's a certified master gardener -- Snipes, in her 50s, wears her brown hair in a long braid that hangs down her back. Gloves, a muffler, and a knit cap insulate her against the icy wind blowing hard from the east. Her back is to the 40-mile-per-hour gusts as she walks through the knee-high grass covering her land. "This was all black," she says. "It looked like a moonscape. I am an artist, and I just couldn't paint. I couldn't believe what all the black did to me."

Snipes, with her golden retriever Lily in tow, walks up to an oak tree with a five-foot-diameter trunk. About an eighth of the base of the trunk is missing. Snipes walks through the empty portion and into a hollow chamber three feet wide and tall enough for her to stand up. Lily follows her. "Two to three weeks after the fire raged through here," Snipes says, "it was still hot enough to barbecue inside this tree. Now look at how it is coming back."

Though many long branches hang dead and leafless except for a smattering of dead leaves, new glossy green leaves and stout new branches, some two inches in diameter, grow in a thick mass at the top of the main trunk. "The inner wood of the trunk," Lazaneo explains, "is basically just dead wood, and if there is an opening to it, it can ignite and burn. But the outer layer of the sapwood, just beneath the bark, is the growing part of the tree, and as long as that isn't heated up enough to kill it, it will continue to function and grow after fire."

Though the core wood serves some purpose in terms of the structural strength of the tree, Lazaneo says it's minimal. "Eighty percent of the strength is in that outer [sapwood] tube. You don't need to have a whole solid cross section there."

Another oak on Snipes's property illustrates that fact more dramatically. Though three quarters of the bottom ten feet of the trunk was burned away, what's left of the trunk still supports four or five dead branches a foot in diameter and 10 to 15 feet long. As with the hollow oak, a clump of hearty new leaves and branches grows at the top of the mangled trunk. But on this tree, a thick bush of new trunks and prickly green leaves also grows from the base of the trunk. Less than a year and a half after the fire, the bush nears eight feet in height and is about that wide.

"People think oaks grow very slowly," Lazaneo says, "and as they get older, they do slow down. But if you grow an oak from an acorn, you can have a 20-foot tree in ten years. They grow rather rapidly when they're young. If you've got an intact root system, and you've got sprouts growing up from that, it'll grow even faster because it's got all those roots already out there that can bring up the moisture and nutrients."

"This is a sugar bush," says Snipes as she approaches a shrub about six feet in diameter and six feet tall in the middle of an open, sandy area near the creek bed. "It's a member of the sumac family, along with lemonade berry and laurel sumac."

The glossy, pointed leaves of the new growth contrast with the burned, dead branches, which are black where the scorched bark still adheres, white where it has peeled away. Nearby, more sugar bushes grow where the fire burned everything above ground. "In chaparral plant communities," Lazaneo explains, "where you have more woody shrubs such as manzanita and sumac, many of these resprout from the root crown at the base of the plant or from underground root stems. And that actually is starting to occur already [in the burned areas]. Because those roots go down fairly deep, they have access to moisture, and so they will start sprouting before we even get any significant rain."

In addition to sprouts from existing root systems, Lazaneo says, "There are other plants that reproduce after fire primarily from seed that has been deposited in the soil. Some of the seed will get destroyed in the fire, but most of it survives, and in fact many of the seeds require the heat and smoke of a fire to be able to accept water so that they can germinate. They sit there and wait for the fire so that they can soften up enough to take water and begin growing."

A little further on, Snipes stops and stoops over to inspect a plant about a foot high with narrow, fuzzy gray-green leaves and a few clusters of tiny dried blooms. "This is California buckwheat, which is the most common buckwheat out of the 15 in the county. It is not a real showy anything; it will bloom this next spring."

Buckwheat and other annual wildflowers grow from seed that, Lazaneo says, should sprout with the first spring rains. "They get mixed into the soil, and a percentage of that seed, in almost all cases, will survive. Fires are pretty hot, but it's rare that they're hot enough to kill all the seed in the soil."

Lazaneo says it's impossible to put a number on the percentage of seeds that will survive a wildfire. "But if you consider the thousands of seeds that are produced in one plant -- and those drop down in the soil every year, and those can be viable for sometimes five years or more -- you get hundreds of seeds in a square foot of soil. So even if 10 percent survived, you've got more than enough. And by the next seeding cycle, you're back to normal."

Because of the quick show wildflowers will bring, Lazaneo recognizes the temptation to spread seed in burned areas, a practice he says is "Fine, if you've got disturbed sites where native plants have been removed. There are going to be some wildflowers in the [untouched] native areas, but we don't recommend planting or seeding in those areas because poppies, for example, may be native to California, but they're not necessarily native to where you are planting them. And, again, if you plant anything that sprouts right away, whether it's an exotic or a native, in an area where the seeds of chaparral plants are waiting to sprout...these annual plants are designed to sprout quickly, get a root system down, and suck up as much moisture as they can so that they can grow and produce seed. That leaves less water and nutrients for the perennial shrubs that want to grow."

Depending on the amount of rainfall we receive in the next few years, Lazaneo believes chaparral areas that were burned in the county -- if left to regenerate themselves -- will return to prefire fullness in seven to ten years. "Within three years it will look nice and covered," he says.

Landowners in the burned conifer forest habitats from Julian to Cuyamaca probably will never see their forest look like it did before the Cedar Creek fire. "That is going to take a lot longer," Lazaneo explains, "because the cycle on that vegetation in a conifer forest is a longer period of time, 80 to 100 years. Cuyamaca State Park isn't going to look anything like we remember it for probably another 25 to 30 years. But, within five to ten years, things are going to look very nice there. It's just that you are not going to have this big canopy of trees like you used to. You'll get a mixture of trees and shrubs. Then the natural cycle is that over time the trees outgrow the shrubs and start shading them, and the shrubby growth tends to die out. Or, you would have some smaller fires that would remove the shrubs but not harm the trees."

Clint Powell, Snipes's partner and a longtime backcountry naturalist, believes some species of pine will never grow back in our local mountains. "Sugar pines," Powell wrote in the January 14 Julian News, "many over 300 years old, are all dead. The Cuyamaca Mountains contained the most southern location in California for these majestic trees. Many of these trees were five to six feet in diameter.... The same can be said about the Jeffrey and ponderosa pines. They, too, were enormous, inspirational, and beautiful."

Powell says the local Jeffrey, sugar, and ponderosa pines originally took root at a time when the Cuyamacas received 60 to 80 inches of rain annually. Of late, the yearly rainfall has been below 30 inches, sometimes closer to 20 inches. Because of that, he believes they will not regrow. The void, he says, will be partly filled with less enormous, less inspirational Coulter pines, but primarily filled with oaks, "ceanothus, scrub oak, and manzanita.... Without the shade of the huge conifers, chaparral plants will thrive."

Lazaneo is not against planting native trees and shrubs in burned areas. In fact, he recommends Las Pilitas Nursery in north Escondido and Manzanita Native Plant Nursery in Boulevard. He also recommends the Louis Moran Reforestation Center at the University of California at Davis. "They collect seeds from all the zones in the state," he explains, "so they can tell you what's appropriate for your area, and they can send it to you."

But before you plant, Lazaneo says, "Wait until well into the spring, late spring; see if there is any growth. And then you can cut out dead material, if you want to, and replant."

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