No I'm not talking about recovery from a weekend riding in the mountains drinking beer and swilling rye whiskey. I’m talking about fire recovery in specific wildfire recovery in a native ecosystem. Its been a little over 5 years now since the 2007 Witch Creek Wildfire coupled with the Poomacha Wildfire in the north descended on my park fueled by high Santa Ana winds and drought conditions. I was at work when the fires started on October 21st, 2007 the day before my birthday. It was a Sunday and a fairly quiet day despite the fires that were beginning to gain ground in the backcountry to the north and east. Towards the end of that day I was really beginning to wonder if things were about to change for the worse. The air was thick with smoke and I remember climbing up on the roof of the office to try and get a better look. I saw nothing but white smoke but the reports I was getting seemed to say that we would dodge the bullet as we did in 2003 Cedar/Paradise wildfires that strangely enough started again at the end of October on the 26th.
I continued to watch the news throughout the night and went to bed hoping for the best. I awoke however to TV news reports of the fires march west towards the ocean using the San Dieguito River Parks corridor and abundant fuel source as its path. The air in North County had changed from white smoke to an acrid red hell fire engulfing cloud, ash rained down over Escondido as I wondered how I could access the park to check on the devastation I was sure was happening. The closest I got that day was the outer edge of the park by North County Fair Mall. It was clear at that point that we were losing everything.
The next day I found out the totality of the destruction. The fire had gone straight through the heart of the River Park and nothing was spared. Using my Ranger credentials I gained access to the Highland Vly rd leading to my office, the park was gone, completely. The road on either side was bare, nothing but dirt and burnt out trees, power lines hung in mid air and an abandoned burnt out vehicle sat in the middle of the road a testament to the speed of the fire. I continued on to the office and it too was gone except for a few charred filing cabinets. This story was the same for much of the park. All in all we lost about 75% of the entire habitat within the River Parks open space. We lost 99% of all the parks assets, the only reason I don’t say 100% is because we had a Park truck in the shop at the time. Office, vehicles, heavy equipment, tools, kiosk, bridges, picnic tables all gone.
But this story is about recovery right? Right, since then we have recovered as a park, dealing with FEMA and other agencies we rebuilt most of our infrastructure. It was not easy, and every step we took in the early days was a new one. But we were able to get up and running quickly, by memory and memory alone we replaced most of tools and equipment that was lost. That was us. The park itself took a little longer.
I really debated on how well the habitat would recover. We spent a lot of time in the first couple of years working with various volunteer crews like the California Conservation Corps, Urban Corp and the good people at American Conservation Experience as well as our own dedicated crews to replant and rehabilitate the habitat. I'm not sure how many plants we planted back in those days but it numbered into the tens of thousands.We got really good at not only planting them but also propagating them on our own. I gained an entirely new skill set during that time. Slowly but surely the habitat rebounded and at this point you would be hard pressed to tell that a wildfire that cost the park 75% of it's habitat had actually happened at all.
Fire is a natural thing and though the losses to the human aspects were great the habitat actually responded positively. It cleared the palate you could say. It got rid of a lot of weedy non-natives that were choking the native habitat and paved the way for a more robust and healthy ecosystem.