Sep 25

Lick Fire burns 47,000 Acres

[Paul Nam reflects on the Lick FIre in Henry Coe]
On Sunday I went to see what I could of the effects of the Lick Fire upon Coe. It was a beautiful cool day, and a good number of friends met on Gilroy Hotsprings Rd with the same agenda.

Eventually we rode along Willow Ridge and Wagon Rds along the edge of the fire-zone and obtained dramatic views of freshly burnt landscape and insights into what lies in store for us once we are permitted to ride in there.

Signs posted at the Coyote Creek gate clearly advertised the prohibition of entry into the fire-zone and its boundaries.

We rode up Coit Road and got our first glimpses of fire at the ridge intersection with Mahoney Rd. We could readily see patches of burnt chaparral to the north on Blue Ridge and closer where it looks like some of the China Hole trail hillside may be burnt. We could see that Miller Field was burnt NW of Blue Ridge Rd etc.

We moved onward towards Willow Ridge Rd.

So our first impression from this meager view was, �well it�s burnt but quite patchy looking, and did anyone bring binoculars?�, �No?� (Note to self – bring binoculars next time!)

From habit, we chose to ride in from Hunting Hollow, and more of the trails I favor are in the South and Central parts of the park, but I�m sure some trips staged from HQ must be made to obtain more views and form a more comprehensive understanding of how the landscape was charred in varying degrees.

The first burned vegetation directly adjacent to the road we saw was along the N side Coit Rd between Sierra View and Kelly Lake, just NE of the recently repaired washout. I paused here and looking over to Willson Field Hill to the ESE I could see charred chaparral along the top from what looked like fire had spilled over from the east.

Of course we stopped at Sierra View (top of Coit Rd near Jackson Rd from where you can see snow-capped peaks on a clear winter day).

The sight of the burnt chaparral was powerful to me. I could smell it too. Above stood a completely blackened and defoliated Grey Pine holding high aloft dozens of mace-like blackened pine cones. Would this tree live? Would the cones open and drop fertile seeds? I promised myself to come back and see.

All along the way things had been transformed and elicited a thousand questions at once in my mind. The ubiquitous Coyote Brush was most often burned completely, but the main stems remained standing like some weird black coral, and these stood in spaced ranks where it appeared as though you could easily walk amongst them, where formerly, before the burn, it was an impenetrable scrub. The eye follows the sinous black stems to the central sprout out of the ash-white ground and I wonder, will green sprouts appear next spring?

This was the entr�e into the fantastic pastiche of a burnt up world that is now much of Coe. We observed and speculated upon how the fire must have skipped from ridge to ridge, and how prevailing winds drove and fed the fire, and how certain exposures and plant communities resisted or were completely consumed by the licking flames.

Our nemesis, and guardian of the woods, poison oak, toxicodendron diversilobum, apparently often resists fire, we were disappointed to see. I made a snapshot of a fine bush of poison oak amidst a doomed and burnt-up copse of shrubs next to a completely consumed pine tree. I could not account for the apparent flame resistance the poison oak displayed. Maybe it is dead? (Something in me doubts this.)

From a broad perspective, the fire looks like it is good for the park landscape and probably essential, and no doubt inevitable. More than half of the trees, I hazard to guess, survived. The fire seemed to favor the southern slopes, where there are not too many trees. How much this was due to the type of fuel there in combination with winds, or the resistance of some plant communities to fire I do not know exactly, but once you get out there you will get a feel for what we�ve observed.

In places where the oak savannah rules and the fire moved quickly over the dry grass, like up on Willow Ridge Rd just N of Coit Rd jct, the meadows are scorched and so are the trees. A good number of mature trees burned down, and most of these that burnt formerly looked quite healthy before the fire, but upon inspection you discover that typically the trees which caught fire and were consumed were distressed, and hollow or split. Trees whose heart-wood was exposed were more likely to succumb. It was surprising to see how many hollow trees there really are out there. The fire revealed them.

Looking E over and across Coit Lake from Willow Ridge Rd we could see the SW west slopes of Coit Ridge were incinerated leaving a white ash layer like frost. I speculate that areas like this were decadent stands of chamise, or chamisal. We observed the spirit of a white dust devil play among the ghosts of the shrubs as the heat of the afternoon caused updraft to form a small funnel whirlwind.

From lots of experience brushing areas like this, I know that a mature chamise stands contain lots of fuel. I imagine that a number of the root crowns may have survived, and we may see green sprouts in the spring. But maybe it burned up too hot? I don�t know.

From what I saw, it suggest to me that the south facing slopes dominated by chamise, toyon, ceanothus, coffee-berry, and coyote brush etc. are the places that burned most completely. A lot of the grey pines still stood, though a good many may merely be standing black corpses, and a lot of these pines burned up completely too.

Laurels were harder for us to see, as they tend to live down in the canyons where we could not get a good look at them. But I�m petty sure I saw a lot of them still standing, and no doubt a lot of them were burning at one point.

We took Wagon Rd back to Hunting Hollow south. This provided excellent views towards Walsh Peak and of Pacheco Ridge and Center Flats, and too distant views to the north. These views were towards the areas in the heart of the fire-zone. My impression is that many trails we frequent are seriously impacted by the fire.

For sure there will be many fallen burnt up trees along the trails blocking the way. Maybe most of them will be easy to clear being more burnt than green. But for sure a lot things will be well more opened up that were formerly stubborn brush choked opponents of navigation. While we couldn�t peer in, it seemed like the Pacheco drainage and the areas around Mississippi Lake were heavily involved in the conflagration.

Oh, it�s mysterious alright. On the one hand you see this apparent devastation, and yet there are birds chirping merrily. I don�t know how badly the wildlife fared. There is certainly much untold tragedy here. On the way in we saw what we though were mountain lion tracks in the deep dust of Coit Rd.

The roads seemed to be in better shape than I expected. There is deep dust here and there, but overall the roads are fine. Perhaps there will be worse mud this season than ever, and it will force us to stay out a bit more, which isn�t so bad anyway.

The Lick Fire is something none of us invited or would welcome. It has inflicted deep wounds that may scar and may heal. Some are terrible, some are trivial.

I am struck by the capricious nature of a wild-fire – how one tree is missed while it�s sisters perish – how one ridge is skipped while all others are scythed by the grim reaper – how one meadow remains gold while the next is black as the dark side of the moon -and how one person is exhilarated by it and another is depressed.

Can a wild-fire release seeds of new thoughts that may germinate into a better understanding and appreciation of nature in us, and suggest better ways of living?