I visited on a warm, clear day in March to enjoy all the new green growth and buzzing and humming of insects everywhere. This is the first of three posts showing what I saw.
Turkey vultures were enjoying the thermals above Blue Ridge:
California poppies had started to adorn the hillsides in February, but were carpeting them in March, especially on the southwest facing slopes:
Regrowth was lush at the base of the California buckeye at marker A07 (map):
I’ve been watching the new stalks of California laurel at B03 get progressively taller:
New, though, was this interesting growth of stalks at the base of a much larger California laurel (not at a CA Phenology Project at Stebbins marker):
Cold Creek clear and full:
Although the reserve remains closed to the public until May, there have been large numbers of trespassers. Evidence comes in the form of paths blazed down to the creek off the main trail:
This activity directly interferes with the reserve’s ability to fully recover from the fire by increasing erosion and damaging newly regrown plants. Plenty of other evidence of trespass too:
I returned to the reserve in February excited to see how much greener it would be and whether any wildflowers were starting to appear. This drawing of Blue Ridge shows a dramatic difference from a month and a half prior:
All along the creek trail, I enjoyed the new greens, as seen in the new growth below in a California buckeye and the Toyon at marker A02 (markers are used by the CA Phenology Project at Stebbins; here is a map of the marker locations).
Cold Creek was running higher, and the water and the sediment both look cleaner than they did on my December and January visits.
And there were wildflowers! Not all that many yet, but I did see Henderson’s shooting star (Dodecatheon hendersonii), Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), Large-leaved hound’s tongue (Cynoglossum grande), Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum), Miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), and Wild cucumber (Marah fabaceus).
Walking the creek trail in early January, I drew some of the re-sprouting shrubs. I have focused on plants that are marked for monitoring by the California Phenology Project at Stebbins Cold Canyon. Marker numbers are noted on each sketch. Shown below are California laurel (B03), Coyotebrush (A04), and Toyon (A02, with an additional closeup).
Looking up from the creek at the same spot where I focused on water quality in December and January, I drew the canyon hillsides facing west. While there was some green growth to be seen along the creek, next to nothing was green on the hillsides in this direction.
High-intensity chaparral fires cause increased erosion and sediment transport into streams, and this can be seen in the thick black sludge filling the Cold Creek channel. On my December visit, with no recent rain, the creek bed was pretty dramatically full of sludge.
December 30, 2015:
By my January visit, several small storms had contributed to small flows in the creek. As water washes the runoff from the burned hillsides through the system, ash from the fire as well as contaminants that were present on the hillsides will move through Cold Creek and into Putah Creek. This creates water quality concerns which will be addressed by future water quality monitoring to be conducted by the Solano County Water Agency.
January 8, 2016:
While the Cold Canyon trails are closed, the reserve is offering guided hikes to the public (current list of hikes). I participated in a hike at the end of December, led by Jeffrey Clary, Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve Manager. We walked along the canyon trail, discussing the plants that were started to regrow, and how the site is faring five months after the fire.
Interestingly, there is less regrowth at this point than might be expected, with the hillsides still quite bare, with many fewer seed regenerating plants than after similar fires. That is not to say that there is no regrowth yet, though, and hikers found plenty of interesting plants along the trail, growing from seeds, bulbs, and resprouting from stumps.
We also observed other effects of the fire, including many new rock faces, created when the water inside the boulders caused them to explode in the heat of the fire.
Due to extensive damage to the trails and the overall sensitivity of surviving plants and wildlife at the reserve, the Cold Canyon trails are closed until at least spring 2016. In September, I visited the reserve’s closed trailhead, to take a look at the landscape and to document the trail closure. Looking through the chain-link fence, I could see charred ground and skeletal trunks of trees and shrubs, but noted that the signpost was left unscathed.
The Wragg Fire started just over the ridge to the west of Cold Canyon, rushing quickly over the hill and down into the canyon. Once there, it remained in the canyon, generating winds that caused it to cycle within the canyon, according to Jeffrey Clary, Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve Manager. This greatly increased the intensity of burning in the canyon. The differences in fire intensity across the landscape burned will lead to interesting opportunities to compare rates and types of regrowth in the coming years.
Between July 22 and August 5, 2015, the Wragg Fire burned over 8,000 acres in Napa and Solano Counties, including the entirety of the Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve near Lake Berryessa.
On July 28, driving home in Davis, I happened to notice a new large plume of smoke, further south than where I had seen smoke previously. This was the day the fire reignited, after having been at 80% containment. It took another seven days to reach full containment.
As I stood at the side of the road watching, an air tanker flew overhead, heading away from the fire.
A couple of days earlier, I had seen the completely burned hillside west of Winters, making a stark contrast with the hills in their usual summer gold and green to the north.