In June, I had the pleasure of exploring Stebbins along with Miriam Morrill, who has been exploring ways to represent fire conditions, fire and fire effects graphically. I took some notes during our discussion (at the bottom of this post) and then compiled these sketchbook pages based on photos and my notes.
Near the beginning of what is likely to be an intense fire season, the area north of Cold Canyon that has burned twice before over the past four years was in flames again. A total of 2,269 acres burned north of Highway 128 near Winters over three days in early July:
This map shows all of the fires in the area between 2014 and 2016:
While fire is a necessary component of a healthy ecosystem, when the same area burns repeatedly with only short intervals between fires, seed banks are destroyed and trees that might have survived a single fire are unable to recover enough to withstand the next fire. We still have a couple of months or more of hot dry weather, and plenty of extra fuel this year as a result of the wet winter. I will be surprised if there are not more fires in this area this year.
By June, Cold Creek was dry, at least in the lower part. It is possible that water remained in pools higher up in the canyon.
There were still a few wildflowers to find, and some Valley elderberry longhorn beetles (Desmocerus californicus dimorphus) on their favorite plant:
The leaves of yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum) growing alongside the trail were strikingly shiny. The yerba santa often seemed to be growing in patches of weedy thistles (star thistle, milk thistle) and dandelions, which are much more abundant post-fire with much of the shade gone.
Brown summer hills and a vibrant cloud-free sky:
Because the green hills will not last long, I wanted to capture the great difference in the view at the trailhead in March compared to last September. The charred trees and shrubs stand out starkly against the vibrant green new growth. Here is the view March 23:
And here is the view from last September 11:
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.
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.