Anxious to see how the area looked after the fire, I drove up to Stebbins once the highway was open again. I was waiting to receive research access to the closed Reserve, but thought it would be good to see what things looked like from the road.
It is a stark landscape but a beautiful one. Without being able to explore very far in space, I focused on details: the color palette, the specifics of curled leaves, the patches of remaining green leaves or needles on trees with foliage mostly heat-killed.
I did notice that the large oak that anchored my view into the canyon on each visit since the Wragg Fire had succumbed to this fire. Drawing its stump was poignant. The place was incredibly still and quiet. I didn’t hear or see any birds save one turkey vulture high above the ridge.
I have been studying fire recovery at Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve for five years now, since the Wragg Fire in 2015. It has been an amazing journey watching the ecosystem grow and thrive after the fire.
It is almost certain that Stebbins burned again this week in the early days of the LNU Lightning Complex Fire. When Stebbins burned in 2015, it had been about thirty years since the last fire. Thirty years between fires is a relatively healthy interval for the chaparral and woodland ecosystems at the Reserve. Five years between fires is not.
These habitats are resilient and plants will regrow and animals return immediately, but we are inexorably changing them as we edge the climate further past the point of no return. California has always burned, and needs to burn, but in small, patchy fires, not like this.