The Keenans have learned other facts about firefighters. "There's a whole subculture," said Ann. "They come from across the country. Many are Native American. They bring their music and arts. They have big camps together. They buy and sell and trade different articles. They wear the T-shirts that are sold as souvenirs at every fire. It's like a reunion."
An old Indian cemetery is situated near the Keenans' cabin. Twice a year, on Memorial Day and All Souls' Day, members of the Santa Ysabel band of the Kumeyaay tribe visit their dead and decorate the graves. The cemetery isn't large, perhaps 500 square feet, and is enclosed by a wrought-iron fence. "They saved the cemetery, too," said Tom, "because it's a historical site." Recurring names on the headstones are Maxcy, Hyde, and Grand. "A firefighter named Grand was glad to pay a visit to his relatives while he was here."
The pond came into view long before we reached it; it looked like an oasis, outlined in velvety green. White blooming lily pads floated in it. Firefighters had felled the willows and cottonwoods on one side to give the helicopters room to swing in and dip their buckets.
"Usually quail are so secretive," said Ann, "it's hard to see them. But now there's no cover for them, so you see great groups of them drinking. How did they ever survive?"
As we stood at the pond's edge, we admired the scene of tranquility. But my eye was drawn to a strange sight nearby — a dozen upright plants that looked like large pineapples. "Agaves," said Tom. "When we saw the first ones, we thought they were pineapples too. 'Where did they come from?' They looked like they had been placed there by somebody." The Keenans have since learned from Philip Unitt, collection manager for the San Diego Natural History Museum, that agaves are traditionally good survivors of massive fires like this one, becoming prominent when everything else around them has burned away.
Unitt came out to the Keenans' ranch two weeks after the fire. He wanted to see how San Felipe's birds had fared. He and the Keenans identified 36 species. On the phone Unitt told me that some "small, weak-flying birds," like bushtits and wrentits, were populating burned areas. He suspects they survived the fire elsewhere, in less intensely burned areas. He noted the oak trees that were leafless but still alive, along with some big-cone Douglas firs that were burned at the base but not at the crown.
Ann, Tom, and I watched a Nashville warbler perched on a low bush. A stubby green-and-yellow migrant, on its way to Central America, it let us get within three feet. "It's probably shocked," said Ann. "It doesn't know what to do. The last time it came through, the landscape looked very different."
Starting in December, after the winter birds have arrived, Unitt wants to deploy volunteers like the Keenans to resurvey some fire areas for the Bird Atlas. But he needs funds to do the analysis correctly. He's trying to find a source as well as someone with ample experience in fire ecology to give input on the study design -- "or at least point out other studies that can be adapted as a model."
As we left the pond and headed downhill, I became aware of the sound of running water. I realized I had been hearing it all along. "All the streams are running much faster than they ever did before," said Ann. "We have more water on our property now than we ever have, because so many trees, which used to soak it up, are dead. So you can only imagine what it's going to do when it rains." Most of the surrounding land is federal property, and the government will make arrangements for flood control in those areas. In addition, the California Fish and Game Commission just bought 5000 acres. "So all these public places will get fixed. But there's nobody to help us."
"Us" includes the Keenans' neighbors — Clint Powell and Sally Snipes. "They're going to be inundated, so they're getting sand bags ready," said Ann.
New Mexican sunflowers, five feet tall, lined the roadway to the Powell-Snipes ranch house that sits low in the valley on 69 acres. It's almost certainly one of the houses that the Keenans' pond water helped save.
"How do you like our moonscape?" Snipes asked, gesturing to areas leveled by bulldozers. She had just returned from a hike. Her route: a bulldozer's trail. "It's funny what you ask for. I have tried to climb that ridge eight different times in the six years since we've lived here. I would get half or a quarter of the way up, and the brush always stopped me, until now."
Chickens clucked in the henhouse. "The SPCA took them during the fire," said Powell. "They were off their egg-laying for a few days, but they got back to it."
At our feet, two kittens tumbled. Born the day after the fire, they were named Smokey and Cinder.
But Snipes and Powell were not so carefree. "There's a massive soil movement coming our way," said Powell, a naturalist. "Ten days ago, a road crew came out to drain the road because of mud, and that was after only 15/100 of an inch of rain."
He showed me the rain notation on a page of his Sierra Club engagement calendar. He has been tracking local weather conditions since 1974, he said. "When we were evacuated, the only things I took were my computer and my piles of weather records."
Snipes is an artist as well as a gardener. Known as the "Daffodil Lady," she's the one who started planting daffodils in Julian 12 years ago, to honor her late father. She estimates there to be three to four million of them today.
She turned off a garden sprinkler. "We're trying to resuscitate," she said. "Last week, the well blew up. Actually, not the whole well — just the pump in the engine. That's probably because we've overused it since the fire."