I love hiking, wildlife, and natural beauty. As such, I was saddened, ten days or so ago, to learn that one of my favorite places in the world, the western corridor of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, was essentially going up in smoke, as an early-season wildfire – most likely caused by a carelessly-discarded cigarette, the dry Santa Ana Winds, and above-average temperatures – swept through the mountains.
If you don’t know the area of which I speak, the Santa Monica Mountains extend roughly 60 miles from east to west. They bisect Los Angeles in two – the famous Hollywood Hills are actually the Santa Monica Mountains – but most of the range runs along the Pacific Coast, from Santa Monica to Point Mugu, west of Malibu. A 65-mile hiking, biking, and equestrian trail, appropriately-named the Backbone Trail, traverses the most rugged “spine” of the mountains, passing film sites and archaeological ruins en route. The Chumash Indians called these mountains home as far back as 7,000 years ago, and shared the land with mountain lions, bobcats, and red foxes, all of whom roam free.
The heart of the burn zone is Upper and Lower Sycamore Canyon, an oasis of big trees, fall colors, and fabulous hiking. I have already mentioned the Backbone Trail – which crosses the floor of Sycamore Canyon – but there is so much more here to love…and to lose. The Serrano Canyon Trail follows a meandering creek before climbing to a pristine grassland, passing a dry waterfall, then descending briefly to meet the Old Boney Trail…which alternately climbs and descends countless times past chaparral and near marine fossil ruins on its way to Boney Mountain and, higher still, to the stunning rocky “summit” of Tri-Peaks. On the other side of Tri-Peaks: Inspiration Point and Sandstone Peak, two glorious overlooks with perhaps the best views in these mountains. Not all of these areas are destroyed (I am told that Sandstone Peak was mostly unscathed), but they are all sure to be closed to the public for months, maybe years. Those of you who remember the Station Fire of August-September, 2009, may recall that some trails remained closed to this day – almost four years later.
What of the animals that lived in and around Sycamore Canyon? The dozen or so mountain lions that reside in the SMMNRA have almost certainly fled; a typical big cat is said to have a territory of roughly 200 square miles. I have seen parrots (yes, parrots!) squawking up a storm in the canyon’s namesake trees. They too, have surely fled for more smoke-free horizons. I am not so sure, however, about the more pint-sized creatures. Snakes and lizards can burrow underground, but how deep must they go to avoid the fumes and hot surface temps? Rattlesnakes live on wood rats, which have a lower chance of survival than most other wildlife in these mountains. If the wood rats die, what happens to the snakes? And what of the rabbits, squirrels, and such? The coyotes and bobcats that normally eat them have surely flown the coop along with the aforementioned mountain lions, but are these squirrels and rabbits simply trading one type of death for another?
According to SMMNRA rangers, research on wildlife’s collective ability to survive blazes of this magnitude is practically non-existent. But as anyone who’s seen Bambi knows, what looks like scorched earth now will be a fertile canyon of new growth next spring. Wildlife will return. I shall try to remember this.
Much to everyone’s relief, a change in the weather this past weekend brought much-needed “natural assistance” to the firefighters on duty, and rain just last night will almost certainly cool any still-smoking embers. It is a real testament to the tireless work of LA and Ventura County’s firefighters and volunteers that the burn area was contained. “Contained” seems like a strong word when you consider that the fire essentially blazed from the Conejo Valley all the way to the Pacific Coast Highway. But not one human life was lost, and most historic buildings within Point Mugu State Park and the National Park Service-administered Rancho Sierra Vista/Satwiwa were saved. Seriously, this bears repeating: LA/Ventura County fire crews are the greatest.
Any hikers and mountain bikers reading this, please note that at the time of my blog posting (May 8, 2013), all hiking and multi-use areas in the SMMNRA west and northwest of Yerba Buena Road are closed. It will take weeks – months, even – for crews to evaluate the damage and give the green light to the re-opening of any trails and campgrounds. Fortunately, there are still hundreds more miles of Santa Monica Mountain trails to hike – in canyons, valleys, and hillsides not affected by this horrible blaze. I fear that 2013 will continue to be a rough year for wildfires in California. Enjoy your mountains, but do so safely.
A few “before” pics from the area affected:
Above pic: The hills above Sycamore Canyon, as seen from the Backbone Trail. The rocky peak in the upper right is Boney Mountain. Except for the homes and peaks in the far distance (the Santa Susana Mountains, another range altogether), this whole area was in the burn zone.
Below pic: One thousand vertical feet below the Backbone Trail as photographed above, hikers pass through lovely Blue Canyon, lined on one side with oak trees and on the other by an intermittent creek.
Above pic: I nearly stepped on this sexy beast three years or so ago when exploring a hidden cave in the rocky mass known as Tri-Peaks. I have no ill will towards the little guy – he didn’t rattle or try to bite me. Hope he’s okay!
Below pic: You are looking down upon the “Great Sand Dune” sloping down to the Pacific Coast Highway. The vantage point is a spur trail that eventually leads down into, yes, Sycamore Canyon.