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.
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.
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.
Fire following wildflowers that have appeared in the months after the wildfire include:
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).
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 lanatum—wooly 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.
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.