In November of 2018, three fires devastated parts of California, in what has seemingly become a dark annual ritual. While the main story has been – and should be – the incredible loss of life and property from the blazes, I also wanted to tell the tale of a place that is very special to me, and the effects of fire on it. This is in no way meant to diminish the suffering of those who have lost loved ones, homes, businesses, and more.
I can’t believe it has only been a year. This is the thought on constant echo in my head as I walk slowly through Paramount Ranch, one of the most iconic areas of California’s Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. One year ago, almost on the nose, I was here riding horseback with a National Park ranger, swapping stories of our favorite aspects of these mountains, looking around in constant amazement that this natural oasis can exist in the middle of the hustle and bustle of suburban Los Angeles. I can’t believe it has only been a year.
On November 9, 2018, the Woolsey Fire swept through the Santa Monica Mountains. Parklands and private homes alike were caught up by the devilish tentacles of its flames. Once green hills are now blackened; mighty oak trees struggle daily to hang on to life. The hills and valleys are dotted with the remains of structures, of homes and outbuildings, and they too char the landscape. In all, close to 100,000 acres of land burned in this single blaze, including an unfathomable 88% of the federal parklands.
Charred landscape, eerie but still beautiful.
Charlotte Parry is the Executive Director of the Santa Monica Mountains Fund, the nonprofit partner of the national park. She and I walk along the fence surrounding the rubble that was once the iconic Western Town, used as the set for countless movies and television shows including the incredibly popular Westworld. She tells me that when the fire swept through this area, efforts were made to save the structures here. Several firefighters were nearly surrounded by flames, but managed to keep a couple of the buildings – the station and the church – standing and safe. It seems almost surreal to see the church standing alone amidst ash and debris. Even the giant oak, the Witness Tree, was consumed, and while there is still hope, its life looks to be at an end after more than 250 years.
Western Town before and after the Woolsey Fire.
Park Ranger Aaron Davis elaborates on the damage. The parklands lost trailheads, bridges, and outbuildings. Retaining walls may have lost their stability, paved roads their integrity. Dead branches of large trees are in danger of falling, earning them the name of widow-makers. In all, damage has been assessed at more than $29 million inside the parklands.
The Witness Tree, one of the icons of Western Town, is unlikely to survive.
The cause of the Woolsey Fire has yet to be fully determined. However, one thing is certain: it did not happen naturally. There was no lightning. While almost certainly not intentionally set, this blaze was caused by human activity. As we encroach into formerly wild spaces, humans change the evolutionary cycle of nature. Where fires once occurred every 50-90 years, they now encompass these mountains every 5-20. Combined with climate change – the humidity on November 9 was a paltry 3% – fire will become ever more regular in the coming years and decades.
These mountains, though, are resilient. Walking around Paramount Ranch, signs of life are already returning. New grasses are sprouting. Some green leaves have returned to the oak trees, which have evolved to be able to survive fires if not completely consumed. Unseen beneath the ground, the seeds of chaparral species have also begun to spring into action, activated by the heat of the fire. (In addition, 11 of the 13 tagged mountain lions in the area survived, and all tagged bobcats.)
While much of the land has been singed, green sprouts are in evidence.
As fire is a destroyer, it is also a creator. It clears out aging trees and plants to make room for new seedlings, and nourishes them with the ashes. Many species of plants, in fact, have evolved to rely on fire as part of their ability to reproduce, with seeds that only sprout after being touched by the heat. While fires may happen more often in our modern era, this cycle of destruction and new life has been going on since time immemorial, and as long as we protect wild spaces like Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, it will continue.
So, too, the iconic buildings of Western Town are going to be restored. Charlotte tells me that the Santa Monica Mountains Fund has launched a $1 million campaign to rebuild. The area is expected to reopen in 2020, though a temporary set will be constructed much sooner near the church so that filming can restart.
The church with blackened hills behind.
While the surface is charred, areas of the park are beginning to reopen. Solstice Canyon, one of my favorite places to hike, is expected to be cleared for use any day now. Visitors are always welcome inside the park, but it is best to check with the Visitors Center (when it reopens following the government shutdown) before making plans. Some trails will take a while to reopen, though volunteers have signed up by the hundred to help with the work of rebuilding them. Again, as fire has the potential to destroy all it touches, it also has the capacity to bring a community together around these special places.
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area has undergone a major change since the Woolsey Fire, but visiting is a chance to see up close this cycle that fire brings. I will be visiting again in another six or so months to see just how far the park comes. One things is certain, though. These mountains will remain the permanent amazing place they have always been.
If you enjoyed this feature, please click here to read my article about Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area from January of 2018.
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