Wait six months. That's the message native vegetation experts seek to convey to backcountry landowners itching to replant and reseed the scorched shrubs and wildflowers and cut down the blackened trees on their properties. "That vegetation is going to grow back," says Vincent Lazaneo, horticulture advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension. "There is no question that it is going to occur. It's just a matter of time what type of vegetation and how fast."
Sally Snipes understands the urge to do something about the dreary black landscape. In August of 2002, the Pines fire blew through the property she inhabits in the San Felipe Valley below the north slope of Volcan Mountain. "It was just toast," she says of the 69 acres studded with live oaks and sumacs next to San Felipe creek. "I was in a funk for six months because of the black. Everything was black."
The shrubs that didn't burn on Snipes's property were reduced to scorched sticks. Thirty-seven smoking holes full of snow-white ash marked the spots where live oaks had once stood. The oaks still standing were completely blackened. The trunks of some had been hollowed out by the fire. What leaves still remained on the trees were tan-colored and dead.
A self-described gardening nut -- she's a certified master gardener -- Snipes, in her 50s, wears her brown hair in a long braid that hangs down her back. Gloves, a muffler, and a knit cap insulate her against the icy wind blowing hard from the east. Her back is to the 40-mile-per-hour gusts as she walks through the knee-high grass covering her land. "This was all black," she says. "It looked like a moonscape. I am an artist, and I just couldn't paint. I couldn't believe what all the black did to me."
Snipes, with her golden retriever Lily in tow, walks up to an oak tree with a five-foot-diameter trunk. About an eighth of the base of the trunk is missing. Snipes walks through the empty portion and into a hollow chamber three feet wide and tall enough for her to stand up. Lily follows her. "Two to three weeks after the fire raged through here," Snipes says, "it was still hot enough to barbecue inside this tree. Now look at how it is coming back."
Though many long branches hang dead and leafless except for a smattering of dead leaves, new glossy green leaves and stout new branches, some two inches in diameter, grow in a thick mass at the top of the main trunk. "The inner wood of the trunk," Lazaneo explains, "is basically just dead wood, and if there is an opening to it, it can ignite and burn. But the outer layer of the sapwood, just beneath the bark, is the growing part of the tree, and as long as that isn't heated up enough to kill it, it will continue to function and grow after fire."
Though the core wood serves some purpose in terms of the structural strength of the tree, Lazaneo says it's minimal. "Eighty percent of the strength is in that outer [sapwood] tube. You don't need to have a whole solid cross section there."
Another oak on Snipes's property illustrates that fact more dramatically. Though three quarters of the bottom ten feet of the trunk was burned away, what's left of the trunk still supports four or five dead branches a foot in diameter and 10 to 15 feet long. As with the hollow oak, a clump of hearty new leaves and branches grows at the top of the mangled trunk. But on this tree, a thick bush of new trunks and prickly green leaves also grows from the base of the trunk. Less than a year and a half after the fire, the bush nears eight feet in height and is about that wide.
"People think oaks grow very slowly," Lazaneo says, "and as they get older, they do slow down. But if you grow an oak from an acorn, you can have a 20-foot tree in ten years. They grow rather rapidly when they're young. If you've got an intact root system, and you've got sprouts growing up from that, it'll grow even faster because it's got all those roots already out there that can bring up the moisture and nutrients."
"This is a sugar bush," says Snipes as she approaches a shrub about six feet in diameter and six feet tall in the middle of an open, sandy area near the creek bed. "It's a member of the sumac family, along with lemonade berry and laurel sumac."
The glossy, pointed leaves of the new growth contrast with the burned, dead branches, which are black where the scorched bark still adheres, white where it has peeled away. Nearby, more sugar bushes grow where the fire burned everything above ground. "In chaparral plant communities," Lazaneo explains, "where you have more woody shrubs such as manzanita and sumac, many of these resprout from the root crown at the base of the plant or from underground root stems. And that actually is starting to occur already [in the burned areas]. Because those roots go down fairly deep, they have access to moisture, and so they will start sprouting before we even get any significant rain."
In addition to sprouts from existing root systems, Lazaneo says, "There are other plants that reproduce after fire primarily from seed that has been deposited in the soil. Some of the seed will get destroyed in the fire, but most of it survives, and in fact many of the seeds require the heat and smoke of a fire to be able to accept water so that they can germinate. They sit there and wait for the fire so that they can soften up enough to take water and begin growing."
A little further on, Snipes stops and stoops over to inspect a plant about a foot high with narrow, fuzzy gray-green leaves and a few clusters of tiny dried blooms. "This is California buckwheat, which is the most common buckwheat out of the 15 in the county. It is not a real showy anything; it will bloom this next spring."