Fire in nature is cleansing and beneficial but the landscape has to be destroyed before the benefits can be attained. I tried to keep that in mind as I went hiking in early August in Zuma Canyon for the first time since the fires in Malibu last fall. I wrote down my thoughts at the time but I never published them, probably because I was trying to be more optimistic than I was. It was disheartening to see the devastation to this beautiful area. I returned to Zuma just before Thanksgiving and was able to gain a better perspective and to see how much new growth there was. In August I thought it would take 5-10 years for the area to recover, but less than four months later, I’m thinking that in another 2-3 years, everything but the trees will be back to normal. That’s pretty amazing that nature can regrow an entire landscape in just four years. It gives me hope for other areas that humans have destroyed. If we just let nature be, we don’t need to fix anything.
Zuma Canyon has always been one of my favorite hikes in LA—a 10 mile loop up and down the mountains through native chaparral with an incredible amount of biodiversity, which you really only see in the spring when everything blooms and you realize how many plants are dormant for most of the year. Tall bushes and shrubs cover the hillsides with shorter plants packed in underneath. At least they used to. To say I was shocked by the destruction is an understatement. As I drove up Busch Drive, I passed empty lot after empty lot, the only thing left being the cement foundations and a couple of charred gates. Only a couple of houses escaped the fire. As of November, some people have started to rebuild, though other lots remain vacant.
The only plants growing were ones that had cropped up since the fire, mostly non-native grass. All that was left of the ten foot tall shrubs were charred stalks. I usually do the hike in the afternoon because then most of the hike is in the shade. Unfortunately, that’s no longer true. There’s no shade anywhere because nothing is over three feet tall.
The trees in the creek bed have tons of tiny shoots coming out of their trunks, but the branches are all dead. Usually when a fire goes through, the older, more established trees escape with just some charred bark, but this fire burned so hot that it left all but the hardiest trees in ashes.
In the last four months, everything has doubled in size, which is amazing because we just got the first rain of the season. All the growth has been fueled by dew and mist from the ocean air, which I find just incredible. Most everything is still under two feet tall, but there were a couple of shrubs that were in the 5-6 foot range.
There were a couple of lizards at the trailhead, but otherwise I did not encounter a single animal outside of insects and birds. I met a local woman whose house luckily escaped the fire and she said a week after the fire, the trail was littered with animal carcasses and the only place you can find rabbits and snakes are in the neighborhoods that didn’t burn. If this is true of all the areas the fire hit, it’s going to be a long time before animal life is going to return to the deepest areas. By November, deer had returned to one section of the interior, miles from the trailhead, but the only other life I saw were a couple of lizards near the trailheads.
That said, I was really happy to see all the new growth. Nature is always in a cycle of rebirth and the landscape will recover, though it’ll be years before it will look like it did a year ago. All the native flowers have come back and they were still blooming in August, which is really unusual.
Tons of orange monkeyflower, some fireweed, and most heartening to see, swaths of mariposa lilies. Mariposas are one of my favorites, but I think they may end up getting choked out by the rest of the chaparral or maybe I just don’t see them in the density of the hillside. This time, I saw them everywhere; all along the way, there were vines of white flowers. Tons of mariposa lilies were still blooming in November, with many buds ready to bloom. I’ve never seen that.
Since every plant had been burned to the ground, the normal variations in height weren’t on the mountainsides. It was really beautiful to see the elegant shape of the mountains without all the bushes and shrubs. Such gorgeous lines.
I kept having to remind myself that the absence of animals and vegetation wasn’t a bad thing, which is also an important reminder in life. You can either lament the things that have come to an end or see the rebirth and growth and embrace the beauty that is unfolding.