The trail work schedule of the Santa Monica Mountains Trail Council (SMMTC) is impressive to say the least. According to their Trail Work Statistics page, in 2018 the SMMTC was responsible for over 4,300 person-hours of work related to “establishing, preserving and maintaining the public trail system throughout the Santa Monica Mountains and adjacent areas.”
Saturday, 27 trail runners assisted the SMMTC in trail work on the Chamberlain Trail segment of the Backbone Trail. The trail runners were organized by Backbone Trail Utra race director Mike Epler, who recently joined the board of the SMMTC. Ultra race director Keira Henninger volunteered and also encouraged runners to participate.
The Chamberlain Trail took a hard hit from the Woolsey Fire and subsequent rains. Under the direction of SMMTC crew members, runners restored washed out and rutted sections of trail and removed burned limbs, rocks and other debris. The trail was restored from its junction with the Old Boney Trail up to Chamberlain Rock. In preparation for future trail work, hundreds of limbs were removed from the trail up to its junction with the Tri Peaks Trail.
Many runners ran to the Chamberlain Trail, did the trail work, and then ran back. This was a good way to get in a good long run and contribute to the restoration of the trails damaged in the Woolsey Fire.
This afternoon’s run was to the Cheeseboro Remote Automated Weather Station (RAWS). The station is perched on the ridge between Las Virgenes Canyon and Cheeseboro Canyon, along the Cheeseboro Ridge power line service road.
It is about 5 miles from the Victory Trailhead of Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (formerly Ahmanson Ranch) and one of many good runs from that trailhead into the Cheeseboro – Palo Comado Canyon area.
Runs in the Ahmanson Ranch area are especially scenic at the moment. Above average rainfall has produced lush green growth in the oak grasslands following the Woolsey Fire. Many of the oaks are beginning to sprout new leaves and poppies and other wildflowers are beginning to bloom. Today there was a nice show of poppies in Las Virgenes Canyon at the connector leading to Cheeseboro Ridge and Cheeseboro Canyon.
Operated by the BLM and NPS the Cheeseboro RAWS (CEEC1) has been in service since September 1995. The station was in the area burned by the 2005 Topanga and 2018 Woolsey Fires and was active throughout each event.
Following are some of the extremes recorded by the station:
• Highest average hourly temperature was 115 °F on July 7, 2018.
• Lowest average hourly temperature was 32 °F on December 12, 1998.
• Maximum average hourly wind speed was 37 mph on October 22, 2007.
• Maximum wind gust was 92 mph on January 6, 2003.
• Maximum daily precipitation was 5.01 inches on February 12, 2003.
So far this rain year (July 1 to June 30), 15.67 inches of rain has been recorded by the station.
Rounded a corner on the Lower Stagecoach Trail, above Corriganville, and was suddenly immersed in a sea of orange.
The area was burned in a potentially dangerous fire, the Peak Fire, that started along the 118 Frwy on November 12, 2018, while the Woolsey Fire was still being fought. The fire threatened homes in the eastern Simi Valley and Box Canyon, but was aggressively attacked by firefighters and quickly knocked down.
Note: The open space area formerly known as Ahmanson Ranch is now Upper Las Virgenes Open Space Preserve. Most locals simply refer to the area as “Ahmanson.”
Running along the winding course of East Las Virgenes Canyon I was both disheartened and encouraged by what I saw. Bleak, blackened slopes extended to the west and southwest as far as the eye could see. But along the canyon there were hopeful signs.
The soil burn severity in the Ahmanson Ranch grasslands had generally been low. Scattered across the landscape were small shrubs and other insubstantial plants that had not burned. Some oaks still had green leaves and almost none had gray, ash-colored trunks from being severely burned. Very few trees had become fully involved. Most of the mature trees looked like they would survive.
Even so, there were a number of casualties. Most of these were oaks weakened by drought and heart-rot. The rotten punk wood in the interior of the base of the tree can be ignited through an exterior weakness or indirectly by the heat of the fire. At some point the trunk of the tree is sufficiently weakened that the tree breaks in the wind or collapses.
Preceding the Woolsey Fire, several drought-stressed oaks in the Ahmanson Ranch area collapsed from heart-rot. That is one of the major differences between the impacts of the 2005 Topanga Fire and the Woolsey Fire — the oaks in the Woolsey Fire were drought-stressed, and as a result of increased heart-rot, more susceptible to basal fire. Winds were also stronger in the Ahmanson area during the Woolsey Fire, which may have contributed to the number of downed trees.
Out to check on some special oaks, I breathed a sigh of relief when I rounded a corner and saw the tree was still standing. A one-of-a-kind tree in the area, the 100+ year-old blue oak was singed, but had survived. On a later run, new green leaves could be seen sprouting among its brown leaves.
After checking the blue oak, I headed up to Lasky Mesa to check on a picturesque oak that has “starred” in photo shoots, TV commercials and other productions. This once-flourishing oak has been struggling with the drought and I had my doubts it had escaped the fire. But it did! Although it didn’t appear to be damaged by the fire, it continues to be in very poor condition. Maybe this Winter’s rain will help. It has sprouted a few new leaves, so we’ll see!
The fire was astonishingly efficient at cleaning up dead trees. In some places oaks killed by the drought or the 2005 Topanga Fire were completely consumed by the fire while twiggy, dry shrubs inches away survived.
One area of the Woolsey Fire that burned with higher intensity was near the Las Virgenes Canyon Road trailhead. A large, sprawling valley oak that had survived the 2005 Topanga Fire (and other fires) didn’t make it through the Woolsey Fire. Like most of the valley oaks killed in the fire, it had heart-rot and failed structurally.
Following the fire, I have seen a usual assortment of wildlife in the Ahmanson Ranch area — coyote, rabbit, acorn woodpecker, towee, white-tailed kite, scrub jay, northern harrier, red tailed hawk, raven, quail, and other wildlife. A couple of sightings were unexpected. One was a small, live, Southern Pacific rattlesnake near a firebreak. The other I saw while running on the north side of Lasky Mesa on a drab, overcast day.
I thought I saw a flash of blue against the deep black of the burned slopes, as the bird flittered from tree to tree. I didn’t recognize it. It was the wrong size and shape for a scrub jay, and didn’t fit the coloration or characteristics of other birds I’d seen on Lasky Mesa.
When I got home, I checked the photo, enlarging it as much as I could. It turned out to be a western bluebird! That made me smile!
The soil burn severity map included in that report shows that Malibu Creek State Park was one of the most severely burned areas in the Woolsey Fire. This was clearly evident as we ran/hiked along Bulldog Mtwy, Castro Peak Mtwy and Mesa Peak Mtwy. Here is a Google Earth image of the WERT Soil Burn Severity Map with a GPS track of our run added.
As mentioned in last week’s post, there had been some flooding and small debris flows along Crags Road near the M*A*S*H site and at the bottom of Bulldog Mtwy. This week we noted some rockfall along a stretch of Mesa Peak Mtwy that is prone to rockfall. Hazards existed before the fire and hazards exist after the fire.
Bulldog Mtwy and Castro Peak Mtwy had been recently graded and were in decent shape — at least as of December 29. Heavy rain may have changed that assessment.
As badly burned as the park is, there were some things to see on the plus side. The area’s vegetation was taking its first steps toward recovery, with grasses and other annuals, laurel sumac and wild cucumber sprouting. Most of the chaparral along the Mesa Peak Mtwy segment of the Backbone Trail between the picnic table at Puerco Mtwy and Tapia Park was left intact. Most of the Tapia Spur Trail was just outside the fire’s perimeter.