March 9, 2008

Experts unsure how much burn-area recovery to expect from this winter's rains

The Press-Enterprise

2007/The Press-Enterprise
Wildlands Conservancy Ranger Christopher Siddall waters transplanted yuccas at the Pioneertown Mountains Preserve, which was damaged in the 2006 Sawtooth Complex Fire.

The winter rains have greened up hillsides and produced a bountiful crop of wildflowers in parts of the Inland area, but scientists and wild land managers say it's still too soon to gauge how this rain may affect recovery from wildfires that burned in drought years.

Native plants may compete with non-native invasive plants in rebirth, but it may take several years or longer to tell what will happen in a landscape, and sometimes the land may burn in another wildfire as in parts of San Diego County hit in 2003 and in 2007.

Despite a lack of rain last year, in the 2006 Esperanza Fire burn area, "There were a lot of native plants that came up," said Jan Beyers, U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station plant ecologist in Riverside.

Researchers will return to the field this month to see the effects of the fall into winter rains as part of a research project looking at recovery in the fire area where some areas burned a couple years ago, or as long as almost 80 years ago, Beyers said.

That research, which continues into next year, is looking at Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands.

The Esperanza Fire, which began Oct. 26, 2006, burned 43,000 acres in the San Jacinto Mountains. Raymond Lee Oyler is charged with arson and murder in connection with the fire that killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters.

Last year, researchers surveyed fire intensity in the area and brought back soil samples, Beyers said. In the fire lab greenhouse in Riverside, native plants and some non-natives like brome, an annual grass, have sprouted.

Last week, Beyer, other scientists and academicians shared their work at a Natural Resources Coordinating Conference that focused on preparation, impacts and recovery aspects of fire in California at the UC Riverside Palm Desert Graduate Center. Many have ties to Cooperative Extension, the educational arm of the university.

They took field trips to see burn areas in the San Jacinto Mountains, the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, blackened in the 2005 high desert Paradise fire, and Pioneertown Mountains Preserve, devastated in the 2006 Sawtooth Complex Fire.

April Sall, who manages the Pioneertown preserve for the Wildlands Conservancy, said there were some beneficial rains, but it will take some time before they will see the mix of native and invasive plants. "Definitely the next few months will give us an indication of what to expect," she said.

Some charred yuccas have resprouted and are up to 18 inches tall, but slower-growing resprouted Joshua trees are 6- to 8-inches-tall and less than half the Joshua trees have resprouted, she said. Rain is critical in the next few years if pinyon are to come back.

Some 400 transplanted Mojave yuccas, Joshua trees and native cactus are being nurtured near the preserve visitor center.

"It will probably be a decade or two before we see what is going to come back," she said. To give the preserve a chance to recover, it is closed to the public but may open for a few programs to be announced on the conservancy's Web site this spring.

Near Hemet, Metropolitan Water District's Diamond Valley Lake is the northern open-space anchor of the Southwest Riverside County Multispecies Reserve, which extends south to Lake Skinner near Murrieta.

In 1993, the Winchester Fire swept across 25,000 acres and destroyed 29 homes from the north side of the reservoir area south through what was then sparsely populated hills.

Untouched by fires, the chaparral vegetation gradually came back. "Yet it still took 10 years before you had your first pair of (California) gnatcatchers" nesting in the burn area, said biologist Bill Wagner, a consultant to Metropolitan.

The gnatcatcher is a federally protected songbird that nests in brittlebush, buckwheat and California sage shrubs that grow in the reservoir area.