Flowers follow fire

Flowersfollow fire

28 February 2008

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Santa Ana, CA, USA — Wildflower season is Orange County’s reward forsurviving devastating wildfire and the threat of mudslides.

A quick look toward Orange County’s horizon – north, south and east –might bring a sigh of relief: Brown, dusty hills have burst into calming shadesof green.

A series of gentle late-winter rains has boosted the county’s drinking-watersupply and covered county hillsides, including those scorched by the Santiagofire, with a lush growth of grasses.

Already, wildflowers, like the purplish, spear-shaped lupines, are pokingtheir heads up through the greenery, and experts are anticipating what could bea spectacular wildflower season.

“It’s definitely starting to sprout,” said Winter Bonnin, anaturalist at Crystal Cove State Park. “Indian paintbrush, deerweed,encilia, fuchsia flowered gooseberry. I suspect it will grow grander andbrighter as the weeks progress. Don’t the hillsides just look so happy?”

Just a few months ago, the picture looked grim, even hopeless. A persistentdrought seemed to have little chance of breaking.

After the massive Santiago Fire in October, fire officials worried that heavyrains, if they did come, could weaken fire-stripped hillsides, sending lethalslumps of mud to bury homes in canyon communities.

But, as if made to order, a series of storms dropped enough rain in recentweeks to ease the local drought picture without reaching the kind of poundingintensity that could cause serious mud slides or debris flows.

The danger isn’t quite over. Heavy storms could still come, and what growthhas occurred probably isn’t enough to prevent slides on slopes bared by fire, asin portions of Cleveland National Forest.

Still, there’s a sense among ecologists and wildland managers that the rainsso far have been just right – and that flower season is saved.

“It’s green, it’s really green!” said Allan Schoenherr, an OrangeCounty naturalist and an expert on the native plant community known as coastalsage scrub. “There’s lots and lots of stuff that’s been sparked togerminate by this rain.”

Wildflower displays have begun in some county wilderness parks, such as therecently opened Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and at Caspers Wilderness Park ineastern Orange County.

Caspers is featuring California poppies, red maids, popcorn flower, bluedicks, shooting stars, blue-eyed grass, fiddlenecks and others, said JohnGannaway, an Orange County parks districts supervisor and something of awildflower buff.

And though burn areas remain mostly off limits to the public, includingWhiting Ranch and parts of Cleveland Forest, some of the most spectaculardisplays will likely pop up there.

“We’re expecting a great flower year,” Gannaway said. “In thefire areas, it’s real exciting. There are a whole variety of fire-followingplants that you won’t see, ever.”

The seeds of fire followers are present in the soil, but are adapted to takeimmediate advantage of denuded landscape, otherwise often remaining dormant.

Whiting Ranch, hit severely by the Santiago Fire, remains closed because ofpossible hazards and also to protect fragile seedlings as they struggle to gaina foothold. But Gannaway said parks officials are meeting to try to determinewhen it can be reopened, perhaps sometime this summer.

California poppies are carpeting hilltops in the burned portion of the IrvineRanch Conservancy. Land managers and scientists there, and in other burn areas,are keeping a sometimes anxious eye on the gradual regeneration.

A big concern is the potential invasion by non-native species.

As the Irvine Ranch Conservancy’s science and stewardship director, DavidOlson, drove his pickup into Hicks Canyon on Wednesday, he worried aloud about”type conversion” – the idea that the county’s coastal sage scruband chaparral plant communities, alive with fragrance, flowers and birds thistime of year, eventually could be replaced by invasive weeds if they burn toofrequently.

“Fires are punching these places,” he said. “But they’re notbeing given enough time to come back in.”

The county’s native plants are adapted to fire, resprouting from charredstumps or, as in the case of most fire followers, even requiring a chemicalsignal from smoke in order to germinate.

But natural fires are far less frequent than those caused by humans. Thecounty’s scrub country is adapted to fire perhaps every 60 years or more. Muchof the county’s lowland habitat, however, have been swept by wildfire only a fewyears after they’d begun to recover from the last one.

Olson knows the heavy eruptions of green on the eastern Orange Countyfoothills delight those viewing them from afar. But to his eye, bare patches ofbrown earth are often a better sign of ecological health than the thick greengrowth.

“This is all mustard,” he said of the hills; the mustard plants,despite their alluring yellow flowers, are a widespread invasive species. Thebare patches often indicate areas of native coastal sage scrub unencumbered byexotic species, which take more time to turn green but stay green longer.

He and other scientists at the conservancy are monitoring the regrowth ofoaks and sycamores in the burn area, the recovery of colonies of rare, secretive,trap-door spiders, and the spread of non-native plants and grasses.

“Fire is a bad thing,” he said. “But it offers us anopportunity to assess disturbance’s effects.”

The Irvine Ranch Conservancy is considering trying to grow new oaks fromacorns and perform other types of restoration in places where it makesecological sense.

He wondered how many Orange County residents appreciate the novelty of floweroutbreaks this time of year. Coastal Southern California is one of five regionson Earth, he said, where masses of flowers erupt yearly on open land withMediterranean climates and on nearby deserts.

These areas, said Conservancy executive director Mike O’Connell, represent 2percent of the land surface, but contain 20 percent of the plant species.

The two stopped to marvel at a fire-blackened oak standing over a blanket oforange poppies.

“Anybody who thinks this is not as charismatic as a coral reef shouldlook right up there,” O’Connell said.

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