A rabbit emerges from thicket of chaparral to hop across the dirt path known as Crags Road, part of an active trail network in Malibu Creek State Park in California. The bassoon-like croak of a bullfrog resounds from the creek, echoing off the namesake crags, which look like mohawks cresting a series of rolling green hilltops.
For a moment, the frog drowns out the ever-present chirping of birds, and the murmur of bees whirring among wildflowers that line the trail in motley colors. The flowers are still blooming this mid-June morning: poppies, phacelia, even a cluster of tiger lilies. It’s almost difficult to reconcile the fact that this bustling wilderness was devastated by the Woolsey Fire only last November.
The fire consumed nearly 97,000 acres in both Los Angeles and Ventura counties, making it the largest fire in local history—by a good margin. In addition to killing three people, it burned more than 1,600 buildings, most of them private homes. It destroyed roads and bridges, along with both water and power lines. And its flames tore through state and national parklands here in the Santa Monica Mountains, barreling down the breathtaking canyons to the prized beaches of Malibu below, wiping away most vegetation and leaving blackened slopes in its wake.
Aided by ash enriched soil and an especially wet spring, the recovery of the natural landscape above Malibu has been astounding and rapid, at least superficially. By March, a veneer of green undergrowth coated the charred earth, even as work crews continued to remove debris and repair damaged infrastructure.
With the arrival of spring came the wildflower super bloom, delivering photogenic, parti-color hillsides and heralding the return of the fire followers, wildflowers whose seeds lie dormant in the soil for years until awakened by chemicals in the ash and smoke. They bloom only in the years immediately following a wildfire.
The followers serve as a reminder that fire is part of a natural cycle in these mountains, home to some of the most visited hiking trails in Southern California. And while the number of visitors to the Malibu region dropped with up to 40 percent in the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire, for those who weren’t deterred by the scarred landscape, Malibu’s nature has been putting on quite a show.
A natural rebirth
“I’m not disturbed by seeing a burned landscape,” says Suzanne Goode. “I think it’s awesome.” A senior environmental scientist for the Angeles District of California State Parks, Goode has been monitoring the region for nearly thirty years, including the aftermath of several major fires. She chooses to view times like this as an opportunity to witness the landscape in the context of its natural life cycle. “It doesn’t diminish the experience at all,” she says. “Fire is part of the natural ecosystem. You get plants coming in that you haven’t seen for a while. You can see the terrain and the mountains.”
As an example, she points to the M*A*S*H production site, a narrow clearing between hillsides that stood in as war time Korea during filming of the 1970s television show. The popular hiking destination on Crags Road—now part of the state park—used to be surrounded by thick stands of trees and brush, which obscured the surrounding landscape. Since the fire, Goode notes, “it’s kind of opened up. Before you couldn’t see through the vegetation. Now you can see side canyons coming though—things you wouldn’t have noticed before.”
Sure enough, the vintage army ambulance and rusted jeep left on the site now have a view of the hills, the trees surrounding them bare enough to reveal their craggy backdrops. Perhaps more intriguing, despite their scorched bark, many of the trees have actually survived the fire, as evidenced by the sprouting of green leaves from their blackened branches.
As spring has worn on, with plentiful rain continuing through the month of May, this paradoxical image repeats itself throughout the Santa Monica Mountains, with dark trees coming back to life amid verdant undergrowth. Turning south from Crags Road onto Forest Trail, which skirts a small stand of 100-year-old redwoods, seeds and pollen attach themselves to the clothes of anyone wading through the overgrown grass and weeds. As the path narrows, their outstretched stalks threaten to seal off passage altogether. Here, scorch marks climbing the redwoods’ trunks are the only visible signs of fire damage that remain.
“Fire is part of the natural ecosystem. You get plants coming in that you haven’t seen for a while. You can see the terrain and the mountains.”
Though encouraging, this abundant spring growth only tells part of the story. While the trails of Malibu Creek have mostly been cleared of damage and welcome visitors, the 2,500 acres of nearby Leo Carillo State Park suffered 95 percent fire damage. Though its beaches have reopened, the network of trails remain closed for the foreseeable future, as does the Mulholland Highway bisecting it. Several other road closures persist, including another section of Mulholland Highway and parts of scenic Corral Canyon Road.
Replace and restore
Coordinated by Cal OES, the Governor’s office of emergency services, a mix of federal, state, and local agencies have contributed to the post-fire cleanup of the mountains, including FEMA, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Army Corps of Engineers, and assorted departments from both Los Angeles and Ventura counties. A spokesperson from Cal OES estimates debris removal to be 95 percent complete, including burned homes, broken water pipes, and downed trees and power lines. This has been concurrent with erosion control efforts made to keep debris and contaminants from entering properties and watersheds downstream of the damage.
Other funds have been allocated to temporary housing for those whose homes were lost, and the city of Malibu has worked hard to expedite the processing of permits for rebuilding and debris removal. In Malibu alone, 488 homes were destroyed and 100 damaged, along with more than 200 other structures. It will take a few years, but ultimately most of these homes will be replaced.
Less obvious to passersby has been the work put in by local park officials to manage the recovery of the region’s natural ecosystem. About 50 of the structures damaged or destroyed by the Woolsey Fire were park buildings, whether ranger offices, maintenance depots, lifeguard towers, restrooms, or park employee residences. “A lot of people have no place to work out of right now,” says Goode. “They’re working out of shipping containers.” She estimates two to three years at least before the park services are restored to pre-fire standards, and projects it will take about as long for the wilderness to get back to normal.
However, when it comes to the natural recovery, “back to normal” is relative. Perhaps the most impactful structure lost here was the greenhouse in Malibu Creek State Park. That’s where Goode’s team, with the support of nonprofit Mountains Restoration Trust, had collected a seed bank to preserve the plant species native to the Santa Monica Mountains. They had been selectively using the seeds to replant species struggling to recover from a growing number of existential threats, including invasive nonnative species, drought, and fire.
Historically, these plants have survived a fire cycle that recurs every 50 to 60 years. More recently, that cycle has been speeding up.
After all, Malibu has quite a fiery history. The L.A. Times counts thirty wildfires here over the past ninety years, a third of which burned areas greater than 14,600 acres—equivalent in size to the borough of Manhattan. Native plant species have adapted to survive wildfires, whether by maintaining large seed banks within the soil, like the fire followers, or weathering the fire and re-sprouting afterwards, the way oak trees and chaparral—a type of shrub widely found in California—do.
Historically, these plants have survived a fire cycle that recurs every 50 to 60 years. More recently, that cycle has been speeding up. “Over the last hundred years, most areas have been burning every 20 or 30 years,” explains Goode. “Now we are seeing in Malibu Canyon that the fire return interval is every 11 to 12 years. That is a change.”
It’s created an advantage for nonnative species, leading to a vicious cycle of change that may explain why the Woolsey Fire was able to grow so large.
Abnormal cycles and nonnative grasses
The simple gist is this: Sage scrub and annual grasses burn easier.
“Grasses are the ones that, if you toss a match out on the road, it’s going to immediately burst into flames,” explains Goode. Annuals grow anew each spring, then seed and die, becoming brittle and dry in the summer sun: easy tinder for a spark to ignite. Perennial grasses, such as the native purple needle grass, regrow from the same deep roots year after year, retaining enough moisture to survive from spring to spring, drought to drought. They’ve evolved to survive in this landscape, but they’re not always succeeding.
“Native grasslands are about the most destroyed ecosystem in southern California,” says Goode. Certainly around Malibu, the nonnative grasses are winning the battle for real estate. One in particular is easy to spot: wild mustard. Its bright yellow flowers added huge swaths of color to hillsides to help the fire recovery look so robust, but it’s deceptively nefarious.
“Some of the slopes here are hundreds of acres of mustard,” Goode points out, “And when the mustard dies, the dead stalks produce a chemical that gets washed out in the rains and prevents other plants from growing.” With or without a fire, the mustard returns a little more widespread each year. Park data suggests nonnative species now comprise 90 percent of the grasses in the Santa Monica Mountains.
If the shift in grasses has shortened the fire cycle, it’s also contributed to the decline of chaparral, which evolved with its adaptation to the normal, 50-year fire cycle. It may re-sprout, or, like the fire followers, respond to fire events by growing the next generation. However, “If you burn them every 20 years or so, they don’t grow big enough to produce seeds,” Goode explains. “If you burn it too often, it’s not going to come back.”
Protecting our native ecosystems
Park rangers and volunteers increasingly try to combat these losses by selectively reseeding specific parklands to replace the vegetation lost. Which is why the seeds lost with the Malibu Creek greenhouse proves a significant setback.
Goode and her team, along with Mountains Restoration volunteers, have already started trying to replenish the native seed bank with the reappearance of species this spring. But, Goode notes, “it takes a long, long time to build up enough storage of seeds for certain species.” And despite some additional funding provided by FEMA and other agencies in the wake of the Woolsey Fire, she says, “We don’t have the resources to replace everything we want.”
The effort to bring Malibu all the way back is ongoing, but months of hard work by people working in those mountains has returned access to most areas. Once again, it’s one of the most beautiful driving destinations in Southern California. Donations to Mountains Restoration Trust may directly support efforts to preserve the region’s croaking, fire branded wilderness.
But what the place could really use now is more people paying day fees to play on state beaches and parks; shopping or dining at local establishments. Malibu needs visitors.