What the fire left behind

Posted by on Sep 19th, 2009 and filed under Viewpoints. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

In my capacity as “prez” of the local historical society, I often get calls from locals asking me to come and look at some cool old thing they found in their attic or yard. Last week I got just such a call from Glendale Park Naturalist Eric Grossman, urging me to come up to Deukmejian Wilderness Park and view some of the amazing pieces of history the fire had revealed. The park is still closed as the fire crews are using it for a local staging area, but I made my way around the barrier and met Eric at the ranger station at the top of the park. We headed up the trail together to have a look at the treasures that had been covered by thick brush for decades.

The firefighters had set backfires in the park to meet the flames coming down the mountains, so the burned area begins as soon as you step out of the developed park. I’ve been up this trail a hundred times, yet if I was dropped here now I would have no idea where I was. The park is completely transformed, as the fire was slow moving and burned plants right down to the ground. The thick trees that once filled Dunsmore Creek had been scoured out and the creek bed was now a deep gash in the bare canyon floor. The ground alternated between drifts of white ash and blackened dirt. The dirt itself had a weird “bubbly” look to it and felt slightly crunchy under my feet, where the ash was like walking through a thick layer of baby powder. Except for the occasional caw from crows, the air was silent, even though a breeze blew through the park… no leaves to create the sound of wind. It felt like being in the desert. We were creating many of the first human footprints on this moonscape, except for the many animal tracks. Eric pointed out tracks made by deer and bobcat, and the undulating lines where snakes had crossed the ash. One snake track disappeared in the middle of a blackened area. “That’s where the crow got him,” Eric told me. Where once big chaparral bushes grew were now 6-inch hard, slender points poking up from the ash, what Eric called “punji sticks.” We passed a couple of skeletons of oak trees and when I expressed regret, Eric told me to feel the blackened branches. Instead of being crispy and snapping off, they were supple, and obviously still alive. Everywhere among the ashes were what looked like pineapples, the still living root bulbs of yuccas.

Eric showed me several old trails and roads that they hadn’t known were there, and we viewed an old stone cistern left from ranching days, long hidden in the brush. We reached the mother lode of rusty metal Eric had called me about and dug out car parts, beer cans, and riveted water pipe. The top find was a film can containing the charred remnants of 35mm movie film. Man, I’d love to know what was on that!

In another area we moved through, we found the fire had revealed several acres of 6-foot poles planted in rows, obviously an ancient vineyard from the wine producing days of this canyon.

Eric pointed out that the trail system would be closed down for quite a while as the fire had destabilized the footpaths. With no plants to hold the soil, the steep canyon walls were falling down around us and we could observe a dozen places where big slides had occurred after the fire. Eric said that in some places the trails had been held up with wooden shoring, which had burned away and collapsed.

And even the dirt itself had changed somehow. As we crossed some minor ridges I noticed that the angled tread seemed more “slippery” somehow, and I landed on my butt a couple times on some minor downhills.

By the time we got back to the ranger station I looked like I’d crawled down a chimney.

I was there in time to meet with Sr. Park Naturalist Russ Hauck and Community Services Coordinator Brittney Bilotti to coordinate some future events with the historical society at the park.

I got to pick their brains a little about the immediate future of the park. The developed part of Deukmejian is to reopen just as soon as the fire department shuts down its base there and Glendale Parks and Recreation is determined to “normalize” use of the park, despite the destruction and closure of the trails. They plan to continue with their regular slate of activities, and expand their activities with a couple of outdoor movie nights co-sponsored with the historical society. They even still plan to have the Campfire Talk on the evening of the 19th. And Russ and Eric were adamant that they would try to get a naturalist-led interpretive hike going into the fire area for the community just as soon as it was deemed safe, within a few weeks at the most. They agreed with me that hundreds of curious locals would turn out for that, and that they’d probably have to split the crowd into smaller groups for the event.

All of the park staff has been encouraged by the outpouring of offers from CV residents to help them rebuild and they discussed various ideas regarding Arbor Day plantings or native plant cultivation activities involving the community.

But this is all potentially overruled by the city’s concern for safety regarding flooding in the park. These bare hills mixed with winter’s rains are a major mudslide just waiting to happen and the City is already working with Public Works for strategies to avoid or minimize damage. And nothing is going to happen in the burn area until after the rains are over. They may even close the park entirely when rain is forecast. They’re being conservative, and they should.

As I drove out of the park, I looked up at the mountains of ash and loose dirt in Dunsmore Canyon and then down into the debris basin at the top of New York Avenue that is supposed to catch it when it slides. I thought to myself, “You know, I don’t think that’s gonna fit in there.”

For photos of Deukmejian Park post-fire, go to the City of Glendale’s website at:

Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley

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