Fire followers are plants that grow in a recently burned area in much larger numbers than before a fire. In some cases the species may rarely have been observed in the area prior to the fire.
A good example of a fire follower is Poodle-dog bush (Eriodictyon parryi), which became widespread in the San Gabriel Mountains following the 2009 Station Fire.
A wet rain season also increases the population of many species. Combine a fire and wet rain season and plant distributions and populations can be dramatically altered.
Yesterday, I did a long run in the Santa Monica Mountains that included several miles of the Backbone Trail between Sandstone Peak and the Danielson Multi-use area in Sycamore Canyon. This area was burned in 2018 Woolsey Fire and there were some stunning displays of fire followers and other wildflowers.
Although not as numerous as the large-flowered Phacelia, I’ve never seen so many fire poppies along the Backbone Trail. Its orange-red color is striking and stands out sharply against the brown, charcoal-infused soil. Also more abundant this year is the vibrant yellow collarless poppy.
The sun had not yet risen and the poppies along Danielson Road were still tightly furled against the morning’s chill. The purl of Upper Sycamore Creek resonated in the canyon below — a wonderful tone that in recent years has too often been squelched by drought.
I was running to the Old Boney Trail and the start of the ridge that follows along Boney Mountain’s western escarpment to the massif’s huge summit plateau. Several of the Santa Monica Mountains highest peaks are on this plateau, including the range’s highest peak, Sandstone Peak.
In December I’d climbed this route to check the impact of the Woolsey Fire on the area. From the top of the ridge I’d been disheartened by what I saw. Tri Peaks and Sandstone Peak and much of the top of the Boney Mountain massif were a blackened, barren mess.
Now, three months later, I was headed back to Boney Mountain and would continue to Sandstone Peak for the first time since the fire.
The Ray Miller Trailhead in Pt. Mugu State Park marks the western end of the Backbone Trail, a 68-mile scenic trail along the spine of the Santa Monica Mountains. The Ray Miller Trail’s long, winding descent into La Jolla Canyon is a favorite of runners and hikers, and a fitting end to those traversing the BBT from east to west.
My run this morning was to the Ray Miller Trailhead (and back) from Satwiwa, starting at the Wendy Drive trailhead in Newbury Park. The Wendy Drive Trailhead is very popular and is the starting point for many good runs, hikes and rides. To get an idea of the route options, see the detailed trail maps on the Pt. Mugu State Park page of VenturaCountryTrails.org.
Today I was looking to do a longer run, so didn’t take the usual route. On the way down Big Sycamore Canyon, I skipped the turns at Wood Canyon (Hell Hill), Wood Canyon Vista Trail (BBT) and Fireline Trail and at Overlook Fire Road, some eight miles into the run, finally headed uphill.
The top of the Ray Miller Trail is a stout 2.5 -mile climb from the bottom of Overlook Fire Road. Along the way there were excellent views of Sycamore Canyon, Serrano Valley and Boney Mountain.
About a half-mile down the Ray Miller Trail there is a popular overlook of the coast. The day was clear and there were stunning views of the Pacific and the Channel Islands. Brushed by whispers of wind, the cerulean blue Pacific filled my view for much of the descent to the parking lot.
It was an odd feeling to run down to the parking lot with runners who were cheerfully finishing their morning run, knowing that I had many more miles to go. After a quick stop at the water spigot, I turned, and sighed, and took the first steps back up the hill and toward Satwiwa.
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.
During the later stages of the Woolsey Fire one of the big questions was how far west in the Santa Monica Mountains would it burn. Would it consume Pt. Mugu State Park only five years after the Springs Fire ravaged the area?
The answer to that question became far less clear following the big flare-up in the Sandstone Peak – Boney Mountain area on November 13, and the subsequent advance of the fire into the eastern part of Pt. Mugu State Park.
The Woolsey Fire was fully contained on November 21. A bit of good news in the midst of a whole lot of bad was that fire maps showed the north side of Boney Mountain and most of Pt. Mugu State Park had been spared. That’s what today’s outing was about — checking if the conditions on the ground on the north side of Boney Mountain and in Pt. Mugu State Park matched up to fire maps and data.
First up was the climb of Boney Mountain’s Western Ridge (Mountaineer’s Route) from Wendy Drive. Except for a little spillover along the crest at the top of the ridge, it was a relief to find that the Western Ridge route and its companion route, the Cabin Trail, were essentially unburned. Both of these routes are used to reach the popular high point along the crest that is generally regarded as “Boney Mountain.” The DEM-based elevation of this point is about 2935′. I enjoy climbing up the Western Ridge and descending the Cabin Trail, so it was good to know that option is still available.
While the north side of Boney Mountain didn’t burn, it was a different story to the south of the crest. The drainage between the top of the Western Ridge and Tri Peaks, and beyond, was badly burned. The last time this area burned was in the 1993 Green Meadows Fire, so the fuel load had been relatively high. From what I could see, the burn severity was generally on the high side of mid-range, but with patches of unburned, low, and more severely burned terrain.
In Pt. Mugu State Park aggressive firefighting and the effects of the 2013 Springs Fire generally — but not entirely — restricted the Woolsey Fire to areas that were not burned in 2013. Much of the Chamberlain Trail did not burn in 2013, and the Woolsey Fire followed this swath of 25-year-old growth westward, burning nearly all of the Chamberlain Trail, as well as the steep slopes to the north of the trail. About half of the large bowl forming Boney Mountain’s western escarpment was burned. As was the case after the Springs Fire, Blue Canyon could once again be at risk from flash floods and debris flows, should a heavy or extended rain event occur.
The westernmost tongue of the Woolsey Fire, near Blue Canyon, reached to within 0.5 mile of the Big Sycamore Canyon Road. For the most part, the fire was held east of the Old Boney Trail. There were several fire retardant drops along this front and the Old Boney Trail was cut into a firebreak/access route. It looked like the dozers came in from Serrano Road. It boggles the mind to think of the logistics required to move firefighting personnel and equipment into wildland areas.
The west side of Serrano Valley and Serrano Canyon turned out to be OK, although you could see where the fire had burned part of the valley and the southwest slopes of Boney Mountain.
Running north on Sycamore Canyon Road, other than the tracks of heavy equipment, there was little to suggest the extent of the devastation to the east. My route back to Satwiwa and Wendy Drive included the Two Foxes Trail, and Upper Sycamore Trail. Except for the Chamberlain Trail, a segment of the Old Boney Trail, and part of the Blue Canyon Trail, other trails and roads in Pt. Mugu State Park appeared to be unaffected by the fire.