Scorched Jeffrey Pines on the South Side of Waterman Mountain
It was very odd to run up the Mt. Waterman Trail on the Sunday of a 3-day Memorial Day weekend, and see no one. And hear nothing, except the wind in the trees, the distant call of a jay, and the periodic drone of a contractor’s truck working on the highway. That’s because — surprise, surprise — Angeles Crest Highway was closed a little east of Three Points and on to Islip Saddle. CalTrans Road Conditions had only listed the Winter closure from Islip Saddle to Vincent Gap. Based on the number of cars parked at the closure, not many people knew about it.
I hadn’t known about it until I saw the Ranger’s truck and closed gate from the Pacific Crest Trail. I was doing a loop from Three Points up the PCT to the Burkhart Trail, then up to Buckhorn, over Mt. Waterman, and back down to Three Points. Part of this loop — from Mt. Waterman to Three Points on Trail 10W04 — had just reopened, and like last weekend I wanted to see how recovery from the 2009 Station Fire was progressing.
The conditions were much better on this loop, than last week’s. Although within the initial Station Fire Closure area, and closed for eight months, 11 of the first 13.5 miles of the loop were not burned in the Station Fire. This mostly unburned stretch opened in late May 2010 and is described in the post Three Points to Waterman Mountain, the Long Way.
The remaining six miles of the loop, which winds in and out of the shallow canyons on the south side of Mt. Waterman, was in the burn area. Conditions along the trail appeared to generally correspond to BAER burn severity maps and images. At the higher elevations, fingers of the fire had run up the steep slopes, burning understory and scattered Jeffrey pines and incense cedars, while leaving other areas untouched.
At lower elevation, particularly in the chaparral and pine at the head of the north branch of Devils Canyon, the fire effects were more severe. The chaparral is recovering, but numerous Coulter and Jeffrey pines appeared to have been killed, and their replacement will be a slower process. This area is traversed by the last two miles of Trail 10W04, leading to Three Points.
There was very little, if any, damage from runoff and the trail was generally in good shape. The trail was slightly overgrown in spots, particularly at lower elevation, but was nothing like the Gabrielino Trail between Switzer and Red Box. There was some Turricula (Poodle-dog bush) at lower elevation, but for the most part it was fairly easy to avoid. Some pine needle covered sections of trail were indistinct, but it was like that before the fire.
From a trail running perspective, it is still a very “runnable” course with varied terrain and much to see and enjoy. Cooper Canyon Falls is very short side trip from the PCT’s junction with the Burkhart Trail. The side trip to the summit of Mt. Waterman (8038′) adds about two miles to the loop.
I knew Poodle-dog bush* was a common fire follower, but had never run or hiked through a burn area where it was abundant. Wow, it was everywhere on the Red Box – Bear Canyon – Gabrielino Loop last Saturday, and particularly dense on sections of the Gabrielino Trail between Switzers and Red Box. It appears to be one of the most common fire-followers in the Station Fire burn area, and likely plays an important role in the recovery process.
Gland-tipped hairs on the plant secrete a sticky substance that causes a rash “like poison oak” in sensitized persons. I thought I wasn’t sensitive to the plant, because I had brushed against the leaves of Poodle-dog bush before without reacting to it. This time my exposure was repeated, frequent, and prolonged; and the leaves were heavily coated with exudate. At the end of the loop my legs and forearms were coated with a thick layer of resinous brown gunk that would not wash off with water.
By the time I had finished the run, talked to some people at Red Box, and driven home, 2-3 hours had passed. Tecnu helped remove the resinous goo, but as I would discover a couple of days later, it did not prevent me from getting the rash.
My reaction to Poodle-dog bush was quite a bit different than what I’ve experienced with poison oak. A blotchy red rash developed on my arms and legs Monday, about 48 hours after exposure. After another 24 hours I thought the rash was going away, but it was actually morphing into a more widespread and uniform inflammation that was similar to bad sunburn — a very itchy sunburn. There was some swelling and edema, particularly on my ankles. In the areas that had the most contact with the Poodle-dog bush, primarily my shins and around my knees, there was some blistering. The blisters were small, perhaps 1/16 inch in diameter or less.
Most of the blisters were gone by Thursday afternoon, and since then the inflammation has been slowly subsiding. Although very itchy and annoying at times, it has not been debilitating. An equivalent exposure to poison oak would have been much more severe. However, in my case an underlying irritation or sensitivity has lingered for some time after the visible reaction dissipated. It seems like it will probably take a few more days for the reaction to completely resolve. We’ll see!
Update July 12, 2011. My reaction to Poodle-dog bush cleared after about two weeks. A running friend who recently did some trail work removing Turricula on the Kenyon Devore Trail sent this photograph of a blotchy red rash that developed on his forearm. He first noticed a reaction four days after doing the trail work, and the photograph was taken 10 days after exposure. As in my case, several hours later he commented that the blotchy rash had merged into a more general inflammation with swelling.
Research has found the dermatitic agents in the Poodle-dog bush exudate are “phacelioids,” hydroquinone based compounds structurally related to poison oak/ivy urushiols, but not as active. In one study the amount of the phacelioids in Poodle-dog bush required to produce a qualified reaction was 100 times that required for a component of urushiol from poison ivy — 170 µg vs 1.6 µg.
It is also noted that in place oxidation of hydroquinone based phacelioids is likely necessary to interact with the proteins of the skin and produce a reaction. This (and common sense) suggests that leaving the Poodle-dog bush exudate on your skin for several hours (like I did) is probably a bad idea.
The book Poisonous plants of California by Thomas C. Fuller, Elizabeth May McClintock (1986) describes a 1941 incident in which hairs from old flowering stalks “easily broken from the stems” caused a rash, but flowering plants the previous year did not.
*The taxonomic name for Turricula parryi (Poodle-dog bush) has changed to Eriodictyon parryi. The Jepson Manual: Vascular Plants of California, Second Edition (2012) has returned Turricula to the genus Eriodictyon, as originally described by Gray. According to the Wikipedia entry for Turricula (April 11, 2012), “… molecular phylogenetic analysis carried out by Ferguson (1998) confirms that Turricula should be treated as a separate genus within a clade (Ferguson does not use the term “subfamily”) that includes Eriodictyon, and also the genera Nama and Wigandia; Eriodictyon is the genus to which Turricula is closest in molecular terms, and is its sister taxon.” I use “Turricula” and “Poodle-dog bush” interchangeably as a common name.
Recovering Chaparral and Bigcone Douglas-fir in Bear Canyon
Most Southern Californians have direct experience with wildfire and its effects. Wildfires are often described as being a “natural part of the ecosystem,” but in Southern California wildfire is anything but natural. Urbanization, land management policies and firefighting practices shape fire frequency, behavior, intensity and effects — often with unexpected and tragic consequences.
According to InciWeb, the Station Fire started on Wednesday August 26th, 2009 at approximately 03:30 p.m. and was fully contained at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, October 16, 2009. Two firefighters were killed in the arson caused blaze, numerous homes and structures were lost, and 160,577 acres burned. The fire was the largest recorded in Angeles National Forest since it was established in 1892 and the 10th largest fire in California since 1933.
In January 2011 the Station Fire Closure was updated and extended to January 2012. At that point, it looked like it might be a long time before any substantial part of the closure area would be opened to the public. But with increasing public pressure to open more of the Forest, Angeles National Forest reopened about half of the Station Fire Closure area earlier this week. Today I did a run/hike in the newly opened area to see first-hand how recovery from the fire, and subsequent debris flows and flash floods, is progressing 19 months after the fire was contained.
The first areas I wanted to check were Bear Canyon, and upper Arroyo Seco from Switzer Falls to Red Box. I’d done loops through these areas in April 2009, a few months before the Station Fire, as well as in March 2007 and November 2005. Because Mueller Tunnel was closed, I couldn’t do the same loop as in 2009, but I could bypass the tunnel using the Mt. Disappointment Trail, and then drop down into Bear Canyon from the Mt. Lowe Truck Trail. From there the loop could be completed by following the Gabrielino Trail from near Switzer Falls, back to Red Box. After checking with the Forest Service that all of the trails were open, the loop was a go!
I’d done all the sections of the loop on previous runs, and was familiar with the trails and terrain. My intent was to follow the routes of pre-existing trails as closely as possible. Just in case, I took a paper map; and as a backup and source of extra info, I loaded my GPS with the track points of the trails. It turned out the GPS did help a couple of times to follow missing or overgrown sections of trail, but there was also more than one instance when blindly following the GPS would have led me in the wrong direction.
At around 7:30 I left an empty Red Box parking lot and started running up the Mt. Wilson road. About 0.4 mile up the road I turned onto the San Gabriel Peak/Mt. Disappointment Trail and began working up toward the saddle between the two peaks. Nearly all of the trail to the saddle was unburned. The robust mix of chaparral and forest towered overhead, and a few minutes later I felt some anguish as I crossed the saddle and entered the burn area.
There was a little more debris than normal on the rocky stretch of the Mt. Disappointment Trail that crosses the west face of San Gabriel Peak, but the trail was mostly runnable, and it didn’t take long to get down to the Mt. Lowe Truck Trail fire road. At Markham Saddle a DANGER sign marked the closure of the road to Mueller Tunnel.
Turning in the opposite direction, I started running down the fire road, and after a short distance, stopped to take photos of the Bear Creek drainage. It looked to be in pretty good condition, considering. The side canyons didn’t have the runnels and debris flows I’d seen in upper Arroyo Seco on the drive up Hwy 2. I’d be getting a closer look at those channels later in the run.
At the hairpin turn west of Mt. Lowe I left the fire road and picked up the trail that leads down the ridge to Tom Sloan Saddle. It had taken about an hour and a quarter to get to this point, and I suppressed an overly optimistic thought that I might reach Red Box by noon or so.
As would be expected with little or no use, two seasons of growth, and a wet winter, sections of the trail were really overgrown. The upper part of the Bear Canyon Trail was also significantly overgrown, and in a couple of places difficult to follow. It helped that animals had used the trail, though their path through the grass was indistinct. Trails are valuable resources that can be lost through prolonged closure and disuse.
Once down to Bear Creek, the character of the canyon was much the same as before the fire. Bear Canyon is one of the more wild and isolated places in the San Gabriel Mountains that can be accessed by trail. Not far beyond the old cabin site, I paused by the creek and absorbed the sounds, smells and scenery of this special place.
The creek was incised in places, and there was other evidence of moderately high flows in the two years since I had been there. Very little remained of the use trail. The remnants of the old Tom Sloan trail are still there, but these are few and far between. There were more fallen trees, and a ton of poison oak. It was time consuming to try and dance around the poison oak, and about halfway through the canyon I gave up trying. Bear Camp appeared to be unscathed, and looked much like it did in 2009.
It took twice as long to work through Bear Canyon as in 2009, and I was happy to get to Bear Creek’s confluence with Arroyo Seco. Except for a couple of fallen trees, it was straightforward getting back to the Gabrielino Trail and to the Switzer Picnic Area. The bridge at the picnic area was littered with flood debris. The high water likely occurred during our record-setting December 2010 rain event.
It was a close call, but no doubt due to the efforts of firefighters, Switzer Picnic Area appeared to have survived almost unscathed. The Forest Service has made a number of improvements to the facilities. According to a Forest Service press release, the picnic area will remain closed until sometime in June, while construction is completed.
The first two miles of the Gabrielino Trail above Switzer really took it on the chin. The fire effects there were very pronounced, and of all the trails in the loop, that segment was the most severely affected. Flash flooding and debris flows have swept the canyon, obliterating sections of trail. The rest is very overgrown. Virtually every tributary canyon is now incised with debris flow runnels, up to several feet deep.
Once away from the canyon bottom and on the old road bed the trail was still overgrown, but was generally in better shape and easier to follow. The last mile to Red Box was nearly in the same condition as before the fire, and the last half-mile (where some trailwork had been done) even better!
In the last decade I’ve followed the recovery and studied aspects of several fires including the 2002 McNally Fire, 2002 Curve Fire, 2003 Simi Fire, 2005 Topanga Fire, 2006 Day Fire, 2007 Corral Fire and 2008 Sesnon Fire. Even after having observed it many times, I continue to be amazed at the resilience of fire-adapted ecosystems. As long as the fire recurrence interval isn’t too short, nature seems to do a pretty good job of recovery.