November 7, 2007

Blazes leaving scars on parks

The Press-Enterprise

Pipes Canyon after the Sawtooth fire. Some of the pinyon-pines here were over 1,200 years old. Nearly all were killed. The Joshua trees were hundreds of years old.

More than four years after the Old Fire swept through the San Bernardino Mountains, a major campground and trail at a state park remain closed; sixteen months after the Sawtooth Complex Fire raged across the desert near Yucca Valley, a popular hiking and equestrian preserve has yet to re-open.

And another state park, nestled against the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains, was badly damaged by last year's Esperanza Fire before the public even got a chance to see the scenic landscape that was awaiting groundwater contamination cleanup.

And more recently, the Slide and two Butler fires near Fawnskin and Running Springs damaged campgrounds and hiking trails, including a five-mile segment of the Pacific Crest Trail that will remain closed until the spring when debris and burned trees will be removed, said Paul Bennett, a recreational officer with the forest's mountaintop district.

Fires that have marched across the desert and mountains in recent years have severely scarred popular Inland recreation areas, often requiring costly and lengthy recoveries. Since the 2003 Old Fire, more than 100,000 acres of parkland, forest and preserves have been damaged, prompting at least $5.1 million in repairs.

At Silverwood Lake State Recreation Area alone, the damage toll was $3 million from the 2003 Old Fire and the floods that followed. Bridges, restrooms, sewer lines, roads, guardrails, a fishing dock, the Pacific Crest Trial and other paths were damaged, and major construction projects continue today.

Officials at Mojave National Preserve in northeastern San Bernardino County spent $1.1 million fixing gravel roads that were damaged by floods that followed the Hackberry Complex Fire, which burned for six days in June 2005 and swallowed more than 70,000 acres in the preserve, said Larry Whalon, the park's deputy superintendent.

At Pipes Canyon Preserve east of Pioneertown, the damage was more physical than financial. The Sawtooth Fire so badly charred pinyon pines, some dating back more than 1,000 years, that they may not sprout new life. And the junipers and Joshua trees may not fare much better.

A graveyard of hundreds if not thousands of blackened Joshua trees, some with their weakened limbs bending downward in a bleak landscape, remind April Sall of what was once a thriving preserve for hikers and equestrians at the crossroads of two ecosystems: the Mojave Desert and the eastern San Bernardino Mountains.

"It was a really neat canyon," said Sall, who manages the preserve owned by the Wildlands Conservancy, a nonprofit in Oak Glen. Sall said she expected a wildfire to some day hit the preserve, but not one that would destroy 90 percent of it.

"We expected the fire to be more patchy and more mosaic, but it was total devastation," she said of the July 2006 fire.

Costly repairs

At Silverwood Lake, crews are working to replace four large bridges that link a three-mile, dirt trail skirting the reservoir for bikers and hikers. The trail has been closed since the Old Fire burned through four years ago. At $697,000, the bridge project is the costliest repair.

"Without this bridge, it doesn't allow for access to some very beautiful parts of the park," said park superintendent Kevin Forrester as he stood by one of the wooden bridges under repair.

The area known as Miller Canyon surrounds an offshoot of the lake and the trail is at the base of steep hills marked by manzanitas, some whose limbs are still blackened. It will probably be another year before the area is reopened.

"The area is very unstable," Forrester said. "We still have a lot of work to do."

He is hoping for some good rains this winter to shore up the hillsides with some vegetation to keep debris from sliding down.

Forrester said it's frustrating to keep closed portions of one the region's few state parks, given the burgeoning population in the area. But, he said, they've done their best as much of the funding trickles in from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Across the lake in Cleghorn Canyon, an equestrian campground has remained closed since 2003, when fast-moving flames severely damaged the camp's bathroom and showers. One benefit of designing a new structure, Forrester said, is that it will be accessible to people with handicaps.

Another state park in Potrero Canyon south of Beaumont will open in the near future once groundwater contamination, a remnant of a now-closed rocket testing facility, is cleaned up. The cleanup was underway before last October's Esperanza Fire burned nearly 90 percent of the Potrero unit of San Jacinto Wildlife Area, said Scott Sewell, wildlife habitat supervisor for the California Department of Fish and Game.

A slice of Old California with its large oaks, creeks and boulder-studded hills, the park's trees and shrubs are recovering with the help of cool, moist weather that drifts in from the coast, Sewell said.

"As an outdoor enthusiast, I really want to see it open for nature walks, birding, or mountain biking, horseback riding, that's the enthusiast in me," Sewell said. As a supervisor, he said, "we want to make sure it's completely safe."

Hard to heal

At the Pipes Canyon Preserve, recently renamed the Pioneertown Mountains Preserve, it's a seven-mile trudge through badly burned areas to get to the 10 percent of the 33,000 acres that escaped the flames.

In a dry creek bed at the head of several hiking and horse trails surrounded by still-charred hillsides, a few orange spikes of Indian paintbrush and the orange-red blooms of a California fuchsia are the few bits of color and natural life that have reemerged.

Like elsewhere, scant rain and strong winds have made it tough for seedlings to take hold, Sall said.

"Mostly we have to let nature take its course," she said, "there's not a lot of active restoration we can do."

The preserve staff already did what active restoration was possible. Crews planted 400 Joshua trees, Mojave yuccas and chollas along roads and by the preserve headquarters so as not to disturb native seed banks in the open land and what might grow back naturally. The trees were transplanted from housing developments in Yucca Valley where it's illegal to chop them down, said Robert Kirschmann, the city's associate planner.

Ranger Christopher Siddall drives around hauling a 500-gallon water tank so he can water the transplants with a hose.

Sall said she hopes winter rains will be enough to spur the re-growth of groundcover so the preserve can reopen in the spring. If not, the preserve may open then for limited use on weekends, she said.

Whalon, at the Mojave National Preserve, said a good dose of winter rain is also needed there to heal the desert, which is easy to scar and hard to heal.

"Winter rain tends not to run off," he said. "The (summer) monsoon rains are fine, but they tend to erode more."

Grim Toll

Sall's eyes nearly tear up and her voice chokes with emotion when talking about the fire's grim toll: dozens of animal carcasses -- jackrabbits, coyotes and others -- that she had to pick up herself. Her ties to the land are deep: her grandmother homesteaded the land in the late 1920s and her father was raised there.

The name was changed to the Pioneertown Mountains Preserve about five months ago after land in and around the town were donated to the Wildlands Conservancy, enlarging the preserve beyond Pipes Canyon, said David Myers, the conservancy's executive director.

"Pioneertown is going through a hard time," Myers said, "so we thought it would be good for the esprit de corps to call it that." Some 55 homes in the Yucca Valley area and Pioneertown, originally built in the 1940s as a movie set for Westerns, were destroyed in the Sawtooth Fire.

It's difficult not to reopen the preserve to the public, Sall said, conceding there has been some pressure from hikers and equestrians wanting to use the trails that wind through streams, desert willows, cottonwoods, and scrub oaks and ascend to Onyx Summit in the San Bernardino Mountains.

"But given the devastation," she said, "it's best to let this place heal a little longer."

Video: Restoration continues at Pioneertown Mountains Preserve following the 2006 Sawtooth Fire.