A handful of fishermen dot the shoreline and a few small boats bob on Lake Cuyamaca. Mallards patrol the shallows, swimming across reflections of the azure sky, periodically stopping to dunk their emerald heads below the surface in search of food. A raspy croak interrupts the silence as two great blue herons soar overhead. Moments later a familiar honking announces the arrival of a half dozen Canadian geese. Flying in a trademark V pattern, they promptly break formation and make a choreographed water landing. Everything here seems just as it should, vibrant and healthy. It's amazing how quickly nature recovers.
Evidence of the Cedar fire, which ravaged these shores two months ago, is fading fast. In the areas immediately surrounding the lake, new green shoots have germinated and sprout a few inches above the ground. Wildlife is flourishing and the land, painted jet black by the flames, has faded to more neutral shades of gray and brown.
But the mountains surrounding the lake still exhibit the toll of the flames. Stripped bare of their coniferous crowns and their sylvan cloaks, Cuyamaca, North and Middle Peaks have all been reduced to battered hills. These mountains once supported trees that stood when the first Europeans discovered San Diego; now they look tired, worn and sterile. Blackened rabble dots their slopes and their exposed ridgelines bend and arch like tortured spines. Any majesty these peaks formerly possessed disappeared in a flash of October flame, smoke and ash. It will not return in your lifetime.
Fire is not a new phenomenon here; it is part of the landscape. Many of these forests burned in 1953 and again in 1970-with time nature bounced back and eventually flourished. The process has already begun around the edges of Lake Cuyamaca. The resiliency of nature is a fact scientists and environmentalists know well, yet lament. It's something they can do little to influence and even less to expedite. They understand that, ultimately, on the road to recovery, Mother Nature rides alone.
However, there is reason for concern, and government agencies, academics and environmental groups are all scrambling to assess the environmental impact and mitigate the damage. In the past few weeks, several Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) teams, comprising a diverse array of experts, have traversed the county, surveying government lands scorched by the fires and recommending various actions, in an attempt to avoid further disaster. Most of the prescribed action has focused on erosion-related issues-stabilizing slopes, repairing firebreaks and keeping non-native plant species at bay.
But the wildfires damaged approximately 15 percent of San Diego County, and the vast majority of the affected area was undeveloped wildland. As a result, many of the county's unique ecosystems are feeling the squeeze. Environmentalists fear several sensitive species of flora and fauna may have already been irreparably damaged. Those animals able to travel long distances have moved to greener pastures, creating new pressures in areas otherwise unspoiled by the fires.
In an attempt to add a local perspective to these reports, area environmentalists, scientists and nature enthusiasts have joined forces to form the San Diego Fire Recovery Network. Together they have produced their own report, hoping to supplement the information collected by the BAER teams.
“The problem that we were observing is that the BAER reports are created by people who are not familiar with this area,” says Thomas Oberbauer, Recovery Network member and chief of the Multiple Species Conservation Program planning section for the San Diego County Department of Planning and Land Use. “The BAER report may not be addressing [certain] issues because [its authors] may not know that they exist. Our report provides a baseline discussion about the resources that are here.”
Other than compiling reports, there is little the experts can do at the moment. Many of the effects of the fire won't be measurable until spring-others could take years to develop. The winter rains are expected to play a large role in nature's ability to bounce back, but no one knows for sure. Past experience, scientific data and accepted theories are all questionable in light of the sheer scale of the devastation.
San Diego County is home to more species threatened with extinction than any other county in America. It's a dubious honor and an awesome responsibility. A total of 74 of San Diego's plants and animals are listed as federally threatened or endangered species, and another 11 sensitive species are covered under the county's Multiple Species Conservation Program. While officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Game and the MSCP say that they are concerned about all of the listed species, the fires may impact some more than others.
The Thorne's Hairstreak butterfly is one of three species of rare butterfly experts fear may not recover from the fires. Mike Klein, a Recovery Network member and a biologist who studies the butterflies, says the Thorne's Hairstreak is known to live only on Otay Mountain and is endemic to San Diego County, meaning it lives here and nowhere else on earth.
Klein says that because the butterfly depends exclusively on another rare species, the Tecate cypress trees, nearly all of which burned in the Otay fire, its population is particularly vulnerable. Because the butterfly needs mature Tecate cypress that are a minimum of 25 years old to support its life cycle, its chances of long-term survival are slim and it may face extinction.
“The probability of the Thorne's surviving is very low,” says Klein. “But I won't say it's extinct, because nature has a way of surprising us.”
While he is holding onto hope, Klein says that even if a few Thorn's Hairstreak butterflies are found alive this spring, it will take more than a quarter-century for new Tecate cypress to mature and secure the fate of the butterfly.
Experts are also concerned that two other butterflies, the sensitive Hermes Copper and the endangered Quino Checkerspot, which were both hit hard by the fire. The Hermes Copper lays its eggs on only one kind of mature plant, the spiny redberry at least 18 years old. It's endemic to San Diego County and limited parts of Mexico. According to the Recovery Network report, the fires impacted approximately 90 percent of the Hermes colonies found on public lands. Subsequently, the species may now qualify as federally threatened or endangered.
The fate of the Quino Checkerspot butterfly, which does not rely on a single plant for its survival, has yet to be determined.
“We do know that some of the areas that support Quino Checkerspot butterflies were affected by the fires,” says Jane Hendron, spokesperson for the Carlsbad office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “But the butterflies do not have their flight season-the adults don't fly-until March or April, so we won't get to see the effect until several months from now.”
The Coastal California Gnatcatcher is another creature with an uncertain future. Already listed as a federally threatened species, the survival of the small bird is tied directly to that of its native coastal sage scrub habitat.
“We know that a considerable amount of its coastal sage scrub habitat burned,” says Hendron, pointing out that the gnatcatcher may be left with little suitable nesting and foraging habitat. Coastal sage scrub is a distinctive plant community that has declined due to extensive countywide development. She says she's concerned that large areas of burned coastal sage scrub will be converted to non-native grasslands by invasive weeds. While the grasslands make a poor home for the gnatcatcher, they also would increase the potential for future fires.
Hendron says she is also worried about the arroyo toad, another threatened species that could be adversely affected by post-fire erosion.
“We will be concerned about any impact to them as a result of mudflows or siltation in streams,” she says, adding that the fate of the arroyo toad is directly linked to the amount and severity of rainfall the area receives this winter.
Tecate cypress and coastal sage scrub were not the only sensitive plant species severely impacted by the wildfires. The Cuyamaca cypress, which is unique to the western slopes of Cuyamaca Peak, was nearly wiped out. Growing only at elevations higher than 4,000 feet, it is one of the rarest trees in the cypress family. Because it is grows only in Rancho Cuyamaca State Park, and is therefore already protected, it is not listed as a federally endangered or threatened species.
“A major portion of that population burned,” says Oberbauer of the MSCP, pointing out that a handful of mature trees survived. “It will be interesting to see how those do in terms of reproduction. Because they burned last in 1970, the hope would be that the trees were large enough to produce enough cones to replace themselves.”
But Oberbauer says it takes nearly 50 years for the cypress to mature and become reproductively viable. He says the remaining trees will be at risk for the next 15 years. If another fire comes through the area within that time, the juvenile cypress trees could be lost before they have a chance to reproduce.
While it my take decades for some sensitive species to recover from the fires, every species will feel their burn. Loss of habitat, food shortages and increased predation will be some of the most common consequences animals will face.
Wayne Spencer, an ecologist with the Conservation Biology Institute and member of the Recovery Network, says large numbers of animals were unable to escape the smoke and heat and eventually succumbed to the flames. However, he says, the fires have created a temporary boon for scavengers and predators.
“I'm sure that vultures and ravens and hawks were entering the area from outside,” Spencer says. “Initially, there was just a glut of fried food for them. The coyotes will do fine. They are probably having a great time scavenging.” He says predators will also benefit from a lack of suitable hiding places available to their prey.
But increased predation isn't the only obstacle facing furry little woodland creatures. Because of their inability to travel long distances to escape the flames, and their vulnerability to predators, Spencer says small animals, like wood rats, were probably severely impacted.
“They live in stick houses above ground, which burned,” he says. “A lot of them were either toasted or ran out in the roads and got road-killed. They are very, very slow dispersers and it will take probably many decades for them to re-colonize burned areas.”
He says other small animals that live in burrows below ground would have survived the fires and will do well in the months to come as plants rebound. However, small animals that live above ground and don't eat fresh, emerging vegetation will do poorly.
While many birds died in the fires, those that were able to escape are expected to experience a rough winter and an even tougher spring.
“Some of the birds were killed, but most fly away and pack themselves into whatever habitat is available,” says Spencer. “They will return. There may be some starvation over winter, but on average their populations will rebound.”
Hendron, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, adds that the arrival of migratory birds may increase pressures on the land as well as bird populations.
“There may be some effects on some of the migratory birds in terms of finding adequate nesting and foraging habitat,” she says.
Many of the larger animals that once lived in areas burned by the fires were also able to escape the initial threat posed by the flames. Displaced deer have since moved on to unaffected areas in search of food and suitable habitat, in many cases moving toward residential areas.
“Some of the species that made it through initially will suffer due to the lack of food availability,” says Hendron. “Making food available is ultimately not in the best interest of the animals.” She says some animals may have to be killed if they become a danger or nuisance.
There are also concerns that as deer populations move toward the urban interface, mountain lions may follow. Attracting deer to residential areas could potentially end in disaster if humans come into contact with big, hungry cats.
Steve Edinger, assistant chief of the southern counties enforcement group of the California Department of Fish and Game, says reports of mountain lion sightings spiked noticeably after the fires. “We are getting a lot of reports of people seeing mountain lions in burned areas,” he says. “I think sightings have increased because they are expanding their range in search of food and because there is a lack of cover.”
Finally, there is the possibility that mountain lions may head east toward herds of endangered big horn sheep. Increased predation on the herds could hurt the sheep populations, but it's a possibility Edinger admits his agency can do little to prevent.
Although larger animals affected by the fires garner the majority of publicity, there are several types of plant life that merit extra attention.
Oak woodlands and forests are normally fire-resistant, but the intense heat created by the October fires may have killed many trees already stressed by drought. Oberbauer says that in some areas around Lake Cuyamaca, the fire killed fully-grown adult oaks that will have to re-sprout from their stumps.
“It will take longer for them to grow up to a reasonable size,” he says, adding that many others will make a quick recovery. “The oak tress will be the first to come back in the forested areas that burned. By the following spring, they usually have leaves on them.”
According to the Recovery Network report, the coniferous forests were the hardest hit and will need the most attention. Feeding on trees already ravaged by bark beetles and drought, the fires consumed most of the old-growth forests. The report states that in many of these areas, densely packed dead tree trunks will need to be manually removed to allow new seedlings to take hold and prevent future fires. The process is estimated to cost $7,500 per acre.
The ancient Sugar pines, which also populated the mountains around the lake, were severely damaged and may not be able to regenerate
“On Middle Peak there were some 500-year-old [sugar pine] trees-one was nine feet in diameter and probably 800 to 900 years old-that were killed by the fires,” says Oberbauer. “There are no adult trees there any more to shed seeds.”
The burned areas once covered by chaparral are not a major concern as experts say they benefit from the effects of the fires and will eventually grow back. However, they are worried that non-native grasses, if introduced, could take over these areas and pose an increased fire risk in the future.
Though the fate of many plants and animals remains questionable, scientists plan to keep an eye on things while learning as much as possible. “It will be an interesting experiment to see how long it takes for some of these species to recover in the heart of such a huge fire,” Spencer says.
With the community focused on rebuilding and preventing similar devastation in the future, environmentalists and scientists are faced with a different challenge. They know that to gain public support, they need to explain why the fire's impact to local flora and fauna is important, and do it with sensitivity.
“It's a very complex situation,” says Cindy Buxton, co-chair of the forest and wilderness committee for the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club. “I don't blame people for wondering why we should care about a butterfly when they have lost homes and loved ones.”
Hendron says that besides having intrinsic value on a number of levels, sensitive species are linked to every other creature on earth, including humans.
“This is part of our national wealth,” she says. “These species provide aesthetic value, they provide scientific value, they have an educational value and they have an economic value. We may not know what role a particular species plays in maintaining the overall functions of a particular type of biological system or community but its absence potentially could affect the functioning of that system over time. You may not see it overnight but you may see things gradually declining.”
Buxton says rare species play a key role in the environment, which is one of the factors that makes San Diego an attractive place to live. “These plants and animals are unique to our area,” she says. “If we lose ours, then we lose our identity. It's what makes San Diego San Diego”
Oberbauer agrees. “It's part of San Diego's heritage to have high a concentration of rare and endangered species,” he says. “If we lose them, then it's just Phoenix with a beach.”
Around Lake Cuyamaca things are looking better. Gentle rain has massaged the blighted landscape over the past few months, and January, usually the wettest month of the year, is just around the corner. The process of rebirth has begun and the cycle continues.
Looking back, the experts are able to find a silver lining to the smoke clouds that once enshrouded much of San Diego. In the coming years, the spring rain will combine with nutrients released by the fires to produce a spectacular display.
“In a few years, you will be able to see the wildflowers from space,” says Buxton.
Eventually, flowers will spring up and all of the black will be replaced by green. The mountaintops will once again dawn green capes and the wildlife will return to their slopes. Given time, paradise will return.