Bobcat Fire Burn Scar Update: 274 Days Post-Fire
Updated: Jun 26, 2021
(Disclaimer: I am not a bonanist; I'm a pastoralist. So although I'm doing my best to document what's happening in our burn scar, I might get some things wrong. I welcome corrections!)
As we move from spring to summer a distinct 2nd wave of post-fire plant activity has begun.
Resprouting trees and shrubs were the first to green up only weeks after the fire, including Tucker oaks and mountain mahogany. Most of those early sprouts were killed by frost and activity over the winter was nil. In the spring those shrubs managed a 2nd attempt at regrowth and we enjoyed a sparse but diverse collection of small annuals in the burn scar: purple lupines, papery white linanthus, chaparral nightshade, pussypaws, a surprising variety of tiny phacelias, and equally impressive variety of miner's lettuces, goosefoot violets, itty bitty white cryptantha, minuscule fuchsia monkey flowers, umbrellawort, Mojave wild parsley, chia, purple fringed onions and bright orange desert mariposa lily to name a few.
San Gabriel linanthus (Linanthus concinnus) is rare and only occurring in the San Gabriel mountains. This photo was previously identified as the more common Mojave linanthus until I got feedback on this photo in iNaturalist identifying it as the more rare variety.
Despite having no rain since early spring with the exception of the brief lightning shower during this week's heatwave, some larger shrubs and trees have somehow found the energy to make a strong push. The elderberry shrubs are exploding and blooming. Cottonwoods that hadn't resprouted previously are sending up new shoots all around their bases. Whole stands of ashy silktassel are putting bright green feet around their black skeletons. The few old California flannelbush shrubs we had are finally resprouting. And most exciting, canyon live oaks, which didn't resprout at all in the first phase, are now sending up shoots. When I first saw this a couple of weeks ago, I suspected magical thinking. From the appearance of the sprouts alone it wasn't obvious to me that I was looking at canyon live oaks and not just more Tucker oaks. But the burned trunks were too big to be scrub oaks, and in some locations I could find partially burned acorn caps on the ground as confirmation. These are the only large oaks we have on the property and in bumper crop years we hike up into our canyons and fill our pockets with acorns from the ground to feed the animals as treats.
This black elderberry (Sambucas nigra) is now as tall as I am, more full and lush than it ever was before the fire, and is covered in flower buds.
This Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremontii), like many of the larger trees, didn't sprout at all until recently. You can see some shoots up to 3 feet from the base of the tree. The background is made up mostly of skeletons of desert almond and Tucker oaks and piñon pine snags.
A stand of bright green resprouting ashy silktassel (Garrya flavescens) circle a few piñon pine snags with some Tucker oaks mixed in for good measure.
We had only a few California flannelbush (Fremontodendron californicum) nearby but they were giants. This stand sits in the sandy wash of a canyon that burned in the 1937 Plummer Fire, the only fire in the immediate area on record before the Bobcat Fire. These flannelbush are likely 84 years old and they are similar in size to our largest canyon live oaks.
Resprouting canyon live oak (Quercus chrysolepsis) Although the resprouting leaves are pointy, the mature leaves on the tree are smooth and oblong.
The first round of annuals has mostly dropped their seeds and are drying up or gone completely. Blooming herbs now include Indian tobacco, scarlet bugler penstemon, a variety of smaller buckwheats, whispering bells, and a new cohort of small flowering plants like fleabanes and gilia. The snapdragon-like Grinnell's beardtongue penstemon is coming up too but not blooming yet. Established spiny poppies are blooming and we have seedlings coming up in many new areas. We are also finally seeing the dreaded poodle-dog bush coming up throughout the burn scar, along with some mallows. In most of the burn scar these seedlings are replacing rabbitbrush and sagebrush. I have seen a small number of rabbitbrush seedlings, but so far no sagebrush sprouts. These plants are obligate reseeders so we'll have to wait for the birds to bring seeds. Since there are patches of unburned chaparral nearby, I wouldn't expect it to take especially long. But there is almost no sagebrush in the burn scar from the Largo Vista Fire across the street 11 years after that fire.
A stand of Indian tobacco (Nicotiana quadrivalvis). Although we mostly try to keep the goats out of the burn scar, we do this by chasing them out, so we get a chance to see what they try to eat. This plant is poisonous and the goats aren't interested.
Scarlet bugler (Penstemon centranthifolius) in bloom with whispering bells (Emmenanthe penduliflora). In the background you can also see an excellent example of Canis lupus familiaris v. Doberman.
Prickly poppy (Argemone munita) seedlings. The oil content of the seeds is high (over 25%, similar to soybeans) making them a highly prized food source for our native quail. A couple of years ago some of the goats figured out how to break open the dry pods to eat the seeds, but they only do this with the plants around the barn, leaving plenty for the wild creatures elsewhere.
There are about half a dozen different buckwheats that grow here and I'm not particularly confident to ID, but this one might be Davidson's buckwheat (Eriogonum davidsonii). None of the photos I can find for local buckwheat varieties show such dark pink flowers.
Seedlings of the skin-irritating Poodle-dog bush (Eriodictyon parryi) are coming up in clusters throughout the lower elevation portions of the ranch (5200-5400 feet). Before the fire we had one mature plant near the house and the goats left it alone, so I suspect they will do the same when it's more widespread. It will put on a beautiful show when its purple blooms appear later this summer.
Our local superstar here in the transverse ranges, short joint beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris var. brachyclada) survived underground even in areas of very high intensity fire. Where the fire was less intense, the goats enjoyed eating the glochid-free roasted cactus chips. Now these plants are producing fresh stems with all of their defenses intact and are safe from foraging pressure.
Very few of our chaparral yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei) were killed by the fire. Most are resprouting and many even managed to bloom this year. The Joshua trees were mostly killed but some that experienced milder burning are showing a similar resprouting behavior and there are Joshua tree seedlings coming up around the dead trees.
When I walk to the barn at night, I try to take a different route through the burn scar each time to see what I can find. And no matter what route I take, I can find literally hundreds of California flannelbush seedlings. When they first started to come up a few weeks ago I wasn't sure they weren't mallow. But now they are clearly distinguishable from their less exciting lookalikes. Finding these seedlings was surprising because there were no flannelbush in the mature chaparral with the exception of the old giants in the Plummer Fire canyon. But they must have decorated the whole ranch hundreds of years ago in the early decades after an unnamed and unrecorded fire. Their seeds are patient, adapted to the naturally long fire cycle in the chaparral. These Malvacaea, relatives of cotton, okra and cacao, are simultaneously messengers from a time when California was more tropical and more recently from a fire native Californians watched burn from the desert floor and that settlers probably weren't yet here to see. They serve as a reminder that our landscape is dynamic on time scales much longer than our human lifetimes. That every patch of earth is simultaneously pre- and post fire.
After 9 months of searching for an understanding that could help me move on from the deep grief of the loss of so much of our piñon pine forest, it's these little seedlings that have shepherded me onto a new path. My longing for the return of the forest that I won't live to see has been replaced by an appreciation for the strips of ancient piñons that remain, and a giddy anticipation for the explosion of color and diversity that the land will give us over the next few decades. Finally I can see the fire for the gift it is.
Seedlings of California flannelbush (Fremontodendron californicum), little messengers.
You can see more of my observations along with those of others in this part of the Bobcat Fire burn scar by searching zip code 93563 at https://www.inaturalist.org.
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