California, USA — While boating toward Angel Island State Park across the one-mile channel from Tiburon, nothing appears to be amiss at the 740-acre park. Grasses, brush and trees still blanket its steep hillsides in the golden and green hues typical of early fall.
But viewed from San Francisco, the island’s broad southern flank rises up scorched and barren to the peak of Mount Livermore, showing the face of a wounded and proud grand dame of the Bay.
When the rains return this season, however, the black and gray ash will settle into soil or wash away, and in its place a fresh green will emerge. Fire-resistant bushes and trees will sprout new growth, and naturalists expect a wildflower display to remember this spring, as dormant flower seeds sprout without competition for water or sunlight.
“We definitely expect it to be an incredibly beautiful year for wildflowers,” said Bree Hardcastle, an environmental scientist with California State Parks.
And since there were no injuries and none of the historic structures were lost, environmental experts say this blaze is almost certain to leave as its legacy only another chapter in Angel Island’s storied history.
“Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem,” said Kent Julin, a forester with the Marin County Fire Department, who helped assess the initial damage from the fire. “It’s going to create new open areas. It will be a different landscape in two months.”
On Sunday, the island’s largest blaze in recorded history raced up slopes, over ridges and down canyons, producing an eerie orange glow visible for many miles. The wildfire consumed 303 acres, according to a revised estimate from the Marin County Fire Department.
The fire, which started around 8:30 p.m. on a steep hillside near a campground, burned away grasses, shrubs and in its hottest spots mature trees. On Thursday, stumps of some trees were still smoldering, sending white wafts of smoke over charred landscapes.
The cause is still under investigation, but investigators believe human activity was involved although arson is not suspected, said Dave Matthews, superintendent of Angel Island.
“We don’t believe there was an intent to start this,” he said.
The 29 campers on the island that night were safely evacuated.
On Monday, the park reopens to visitors, although burned areas will be off-limits, he said.
As the blaze quickly spread that night, deer fled to the north side of the island, and none of the 60 or so ungulates was harmed. The fate of smaller animals in the burn area, such as raccoons, moles, voles and woodrats, is unknown, although one park employee spotted one fleeing rodent that night.
“He saw a rat in the middle of the road just huffing and puffing like, ‘What do I do?’ ” recounted Casey Lee, a state parks interpreter who’s lived on Angel Island for eight years.
All week, scores of predatory birds such as red-tailed hawks and Cooper’s hawks have been circling over the charred landscape, Lee added. They’ve arrived to feed on small animals that didn’t survive the fire, or which are scurrying about exposed, unprotected by brush after their burrows were destroyed.
The hawks are just the immediate beneficiaries of the blaze.
After the first rainfall, native bunchgrass covering hillsides will quickly regrow, because the fire-adapted grasses bear six-foot-deep root systems that keep the plant alive, even when scorched to the ground.
The ash from burned vegetation retains numerous nutrients that will cycle back into soil, spurring an abundance of new growth. Areas now cleared of brush will see grass grow in.
And before the grasslands become re-established, wildflower stands will have their day in the sun, with fewer competing plants capturing sun or water first. Seeds of certain wildflower species also last for decades in the soil, and germinate only under high heat.
All this growth also provides abundant food sources for browsing and seed-gathering animals.
The denuded land gives park staff and volunteers an unprecedented opportunity to defeat one of their foes French broom, an invasive brush that spreads prolifically and crowds out natives, creating monotonous landscapes that don’t support native fauna.
New French broom growth is likely to sprout simultaneously, explained Hardcastle, allowing workers to easily weed them at the same time. And many of the seeds are likely to germinate with the heat, clearing out seed stores in the soil.
On the perimeter road circling the island, Lee also pointed to stands of partially charred Monterey Cypress.
“We hope these die, because they’re nonnative,” she added.
California State Parks specialists gathered Thursday afternoon to plan the rehabilitation of Angel Island, and helping nature along by planting native seeds or plants is under consideration, Hardcastle said. But otherwise, park officials plan to let nature take its course in restoring the landscape.
The fire gives more than the landscape a fresh start, pointed out Matthews, the park’s superintendent. With more than 150 years of use by Americans, predominantly the military, the newly barren landscape may yield old relics, such as Civil War-era artifacts, or forgotten 19th-century building foundations and piping systems, he said.
“We’ve known all along that there’s more there than we understand we have,” he said.
On a Thursday tour, Lee and Hardcastle both stopped to note three 55-gallon steel drums in a burned-out gully, now visible from the road with the shrubs and grasses burned away. Those will later need inspection to determine their contact, Lee said.
“We assume they are military and they could have anything in them,” she said.
Two representatives from the Miwok tribe that once inhabited the island also visited the island Thursday, beginning their efforts to look for newly revealed Native American artifacts, such as middens. These piles of clam shells, bones and other detritus of their lives provide invaluable clues to daily Miwok life before Europeans settled the region.
Matthews doubts, however, that much excitement accompanies the discovery of the ancient Miwok sites for the tribal representatives, who are from the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.
“In my experience, Native Americans would almost like it left alone,” he said. “That’s their ancestry and it’s very sacred to them.”
The Miwok representatives will also check to see if any of the existing ancient Miwok sites were damaged by the fire. These areas are off-limits to the public.
One of the most visible signs of renewal for Angel Island State Park, Matthews added, may be the holiday lights illuminated at the peak of Mount Livermore from sunset to midnight, starting each Dec. 1 and lasting through the holidays. The beloved display is visible throughout the Bay Area.
The 30-foot fiberglass pole that held the lights melted away, and the PG&E electrical lines supplying it with power were also destroyed by the fire. Matthews said it will cost up to $70,000 to restore the power lines, which are only used for the holiday lights.
Instead of looking for funding to rebuild the same system, Matthews said they’re seeking ideas for using solar or wind power to generate electricity for the display, and using more energy-efficient lights such as lasers or liquid crystal displays.
Such a system would symbolize yet another evolution in the island’s history the green initiative park officials are embracing while spurring innovation in energy delivery.
“What better place to try this than Angel Island?” Matthews asked.