Thursday, May 2, 2019

Six Months Later: Life in the Aftermath of the Woolsey Fire

The Woolsey Fire swept through Malibu on November 9, 2018. This is Lower Corral Canyon on November 29, after the first post-fire rain. Although it looks as desolate as Mordor, the rainbow in the sky promises renewal.

It has been half a year since the Woolsey Fire. Many people are still in shock, struggling with loss, or with the loss experienced by loved ones. We are all still trying to process the magnitude of the disaster.

At the Malibu Post we were among the lucky ones who had a home to return to because our neighbors stayed and fought the fire, but it is still difficult. So many friends and neighbors lost their homes. So much was destroyed. Every day life was complicated by no electricity for weeks, no landline for months, road closures, flood warnings, dust and ashes every time the wind blew. 

As a journalist, I spent a lot of time in the middle of disaster zone reporting on the news. I spent even more time there in dreams each night, walking through that hellish landscape of incinerated trees and houses and ashy piles of bones (that's not an exaggeration, there were piles of bones all over the mountains after the fire). It was hard not to think about the fire all the time when everything was covered in ash, and even a short trip through the neighborhood was a drive through a war zone. Waking in the morning wasn't much better.  The view out the window revealed a blacked panorama of scorched mountains.

Corral Canyon, January 2, 2019.

Malibu may never be the same, but after nearly six months it is getting better. Recovery will be a long process, one that has only just begun. Debris is being cleared. Residents who lost their homes struggle with the lengthy, complex, and often frustrating process of rebuilding, but at least the process has begun, however difficult and labyrinthine. Nature is also undergoing a rebuilding process, one aided by the restorative rain this winter.

Corral Canyon, February 20, 2019.

Some neighbors may never return—their losses are too great to be overcome. Others are cautiously optimistic, the horror of the fire tempered by thoughts filled with plans for the future again. And everywhere the rain has helped soften the appearance of the burn scar with new growth. Wildflowers, even the non-native and ubiquitous mustard, have cloaked the damage with color and beauty. 

Corral Canyon, March 24, 2019.

I took more than 10,000 photos of the fire and its aftermath. It's still hard for me to look at some of them, but we are only six months into the recovery from what has been Los Angeles County's worst fire disaster. We've come a long way in the time. We still have a long hard road ahead of us, but all around us the natural environment has begun to heal. 

This tiny sprout is Chlorogalum pomeridianum, the soap plant or soap lily, spotted growing in upper Trancas Canyon on December 4. This was the first new growth I observed in the burn zone.

It is hard to imagine anything alive in this scorched and blasted landscape, but just weeks after the fire, new life was stirring here, too. the vast network of chaparral roots that remained in the soil help stabilize the hillsides and quickly jumpstart the recovery of many key plants. In undisturbed mountain soil there is also a bank of seeds that may have been produced decades earlier following previous fire. These are the fire followers, annual wildflowers with seeds that can remain dormant in the soil for years, but that sprout after the first rains following a fire. These plants will recharge the seed bank and provide food and shelter for surviving wildlife, but they also generate nutrients for a critically important network of micro and macro fungi that is essential for the survival of the chaparral plant community. Without this invisible web, recovery would be impossible.

Laurel sumac has deep, deep roots that help stabilize the mountainsides and provide a critical reserve of water and nutrients for this fire-adapted plant, enabling it to begin regrowth almost immediately after a wildfire. I spotted this first sprout at the location in the photo above on December 12, just a month after the fire.

Like the laurel sumac, wild cucumber—Marah macrocarpa, also called man root, has massive reserves of nutrients and water stored safely underground. It is one of the first plants to sprout after a fire, and its abundant white flowers are a blessing for native pollinators following a disaster like this one, where so many acres of habitat were incinerated.

This is the same lookout point above Zuma Canyon on May 1, 2019, re-greened and covered in phacelia grandiflora, one of the true fire-following wildflowers.
Fire following wildflowers that have appeared in the months after the wildfire include:

Larkspur—Delphinium parryi

Wind poppies—Papaver heterophyllum.

Fire poppy Papaver Californium (shown here with the tiny, strong-scented white flowers of eucrypta, another fire follower)

Globe lily—Calochortus albus.

Catalina mariposa lilies—Calochortus catalinae.

Phacelia grandiflora (shown here with a photo-bombing native pollinator).

Phacelia parryi.

Sticky phacelia—Phacelia viscida.

Caterpillar phacelia—Phacelia cicutaria, and one of the thoundreds and thousands of painted lady butterflies that have been another miracle of the cycle of fire, rain and regrowth this spring.

Fields of California poppies bloomed throughout the Santa Monica Mountains.

...And entire hillsides of lupine, acres and acres of heavenly blue, growing out of the dust and ashes of the Woolsey Fire.

The post-fire superbloom that has covered the burned hills in a rainbow of living color may be mostly over, but the seeds set by these flowers will recharge the native wildflower seed bank in the soil. And there will be more fire-related wildflowers still to come: perennials that are growing now and will bloom next year, like bush poppy—Dendromecon rigida, and Trichostema lanatumwooly blue curls, and late bloomers like Coulter's snapdragon and white bleeding hearts. The transformation has lifted human spirits in aftermath of this disaster. The flowers will fade, but they have been a blessing, a daily reminder of how far we have come in so short a time.

Here's a summary of the past six months from no farther away than our own home:

The view we see every morning out of our window includes a transmission tower on the ridge between Latigo and Corral canyons. Here's what that transmission tower looked like on the morning of November 9, 2019, and during the past six months:

November 9, 2019. Fire races up the mountain...

...And down the other side.

November 21, 2018. Gray and ashy as the surface of the moon.

December 12,  after the first rains. 

February 20, 2019.

March 20. Non-native mustard is growing where the soil has been disturbed, but on the slopes that are too steep for bulldozes and discing machines, native wildflowers like lupine thrive.

April 29, 2019. 

The view may never again look exactly like it did before—this is May of 2017, a year and half before the Woolsey fire, but also a decade after the earlier Corral Fire. Things are getting better, each day moves us farther away from the nightmare. 

Rebuilding after a wildfire is difficult. Recovery is slow. Many people are still experiencing grief and loss, or frustration and anger, but we are getting through it, together, one day at a time. For me, the dreams are less frequent now. When I look out of my window I still see one last sad chimney, but I also see green hills turning dusty gold as the rainy season ends. The familiar view of our much loved Malibu mountains isn't a wasteland anymore.

"...What I knew was that the earth underneath was alive and that by tomorrow, certainly by the day after, it would be all green again." —Norman MacLean, A River Runs Through It, and Other Stories

Lower Corral Canyon on the last day of April, 2019, almost six months after the Woolsey Fire.