Cycles of nature will help
repair damage to Mt. Diablo

By Jay Bedecarre on September 23, 2013

Morgan Fire Map Sept 11_for websiteIt is no wives’ tale that forest fires and other disasters are just part of Mother Nature’s way of regulating itself and thus Mt. Diablo will return to its pre-Morgan Fire state over the next three to five years.

Senior Environmental Scientist Cyndy Shafer, who has worked for California State Parks including Mt. Diablo since 1997, says that a wildflower display like the area hasn’t seen since the aftermath of the 1977 Mt. Diablo fire will likely show next spring but that the chaparral shrubs on the mountain will not fully recover for decades. Shafer says the chaparral that burned this month was “considered young” as it reestablished itself after the ‘77 fire.

Cal Fire and State Parks crews were seen using bulldozers and other equipment right after the fire. Shafer said that completed work was done to protect structures and repair bulldozer tracks from the firefighting effort. Generally speaking, erosion in the burned areas is another part of nature’s healing process; in fact, erosion is as natural as fire. She said that erosion efforts undertaken in other fire aftermaths have had “a far greater impact on the environment” than simply letting things evolve naturally, including landslides.

Fear of erosion

CalFire representatives say that water bars and a process of replacing divots over underbrush are often used to stabilize a burned area. And on Sept. 11, even before the fire was fully contained, efforts started to reseed Mt. Diablo of vital trees and plants.

Save Mt. Diablo Advancement Director Julie Seelen says her organization will be “watching very closely for erosion” in the coming months as the rains come, especially after any heavy rainfalls. She says the main concern is for debris washing down from the burn areas and clogging culverts, creeks and trails. Her staff and volunteers will be documenting “nature recovering” in the burn areas for several months and beyond.

The wildflowers expected to bloom spectacularly over the next couple of years are mainly from fire-adapted species that only regenerate due to the high heat levels in a fire. Over a short time frame shrubs and mixed vegetation on the mountain will cover the wildflowers. In fact, the pine tree that exploded and sparked the “big” fire on Mt. Diablo on Sept. 8 was only doing what nature meant it to, spewing its cones and seeds to the ground to root.

Bob Doyle is general manager of the East Bay Regional Park District and one of the founders of Save Mt. Diablo. “There were flame poppies in 1978 and some in ‘79, but they dramatically reduced after the first year.” He says he found a few more in 1980 but after that only wind poppies.

“The other fire plant of note was even more dramatic and that was the dicentra, or golden ear drops, which covered entire chaparral hillsides and stream washes in Donner, Back and Mitchell canyons but were gone pretty much by 1980,” he added.

Even though this fire has been determined to have been man-caused, the 36-year interval since the 1977 blaze gave the mountain ecology a chance to go through a natural cycle. On the flip side, the repetitive cycle of wildfires in Sothern California has seen chaparral completely disappear from areas, replaced by grasslands.

Wildlife will return

Dave Matthews, public safety coordinator for the Diablo Vista District of State Parks, says that another part of the natural process is wildlife returning to their habitat. He says deer and foxes were reported in the burn areas soon after firefighters left. “Animals, like plants, have adapted to fire and repopulate rather quickly,” Matthews said. He added it is only in “very extreme” circumstances that any human efforts are used to repopulate animals or other species after a fire.

Drivers on Marsh Creek and Morgan Territory roads can see many oak trees still standing in areas consumed by the fire. Both Shafer and Matthews say that the majority of the oaks will survive and those that don’t will eventually fall and make for new habitats for small animals and critters. Matthews blames “survival of the fittest” in explaining the status of the oaks.

Before the 1977 fire many pine trees on the mountain were diseased. Following the fire seeds germinated and the overall pine tree population came back very strong. Doyle adds, “The Coulter Pines were badly infested with pine beetles and went up in huge flames. Dr. [Mary] Bowerman and I noticed that while many areas were so hot it sterilized the soils, new groves grew in more abundance but further down slope. Only a few of the pre-fire trees survive below Twin Peaks now. However some Coulters seeds were distributed by birds in new locations such as the east side of Donner Canyon where there were none before.”

Matthews suggested Summit Road, the Visitor’s Center at the Summit or Curry Point as the best places for people wishing to get a good view of the fire area. And by next spring those may have glorious colorful views starting to emerge.

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