Stebbins Cold Canyon can heal from fire if we just leave it alone

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One of the perks as Winters Express editor is that when an interesting topic pops up, I can assign myself a story on it. I did just that last week, and spent an afternoon finding out how Stebbins Cold Canyon is doing after being scorched by the Wragg Fire last summer.


Stebbins Cold Canyon is such a jewel, and practically in our back yard. The last time my husband and I hiked there, we topped the afternoon off with cold beers at Berryessa Brewing, which is conveniently located right on the way home, and hiking clothes and a little sweat and dirt are acceptable attire. It was a simply perfect day, and I was looking forward to many more, and even considering indulging myself with new hiking boots.

A week later, Stebbins Cold Canyon went up like a torch. The next time I saw it was a couple days after the fire died down a bit. While doing a story on the fire, I swung up to the Stebbins gate — nothing left but ash and memories.

I never went back since. It was too upsetting. The only exception was while passing through from Napa in November just behind a little freak rainstorm. Even through my closed car windows, the air was acrid with stinky smoke like an old, wet ashtray. The canyon, still closed to the public, was a black moonscape, and I wondered if it could ever recover.

I was still wondering that when I contacted the UC Davis land manager for the area, Jeffrey Clarey, and suggested a story on Stebbins and its recovery. He happily accommodated me last week, and we stepped inside the gates and I got my first good look: utter cognitive dissonance. The first thing you notice are black forests of tree and bush skeletons. But it’s also very green. The ground is covered with a thick, thriving carpet of grasses, vines and wildflowers. It’s surreal — life and death in such stark contrast.

But is it really death? At the base of those “dead” bushes, fresh green shoots thrust upwards from the trunk bases, and robust green vines swirl up the burned tree remains. Just as Jeffrey and I were discussing whether the burned trees would be removed or not, he pointed out a wild cucumber vine nearly consuming a burned buckeye bush, and it hit me: People don’t need to remove the burned trees. Nature will do it herself. The skeletons will support the vines until they’re heavy enough to bring the whole thing crashing down — just when the new trees and bushes are big and strong enough to thrive without being crushed.

In other words, the land knows how to heal itself. Humans need only be patient enough to let the healing take place. As you start taking it all in, you begin to realize how miraculous and magical this healing process is. You look up — stark, black branches against bright blue sky. You look down, and green life bursts forth from the soil. Everything seems to exist only below the knees, which is such a contrast to how it used to be. It’s like we’re giants, looking down at a miniature world.

Jeffrey said the researchers don’t want to clean things up too much because the natural healing process itself is a rich opportunity for researchers, pointing out that the area is a research preserve — not a park. He emphasized the delicate stage of the regrowth, explaining that the fire cleared away all the brush, exposing wide swaths of ground for the first time in decades. This ground is carpeted with tender moss, poppies, and scores of little wildflowers — just begging happy hikers to stomp through, throw down a blanket, and let their kids and dogs run wild. Just what the researchers don’t want.

Beyond the plant damage, the newly exposed ground is naturally aerated, and the weight of people walking on it would compact the soil and create new unwanted trails. On steeper slopes, hikers going off-trail could trigger landslides — which amazingly enough, have not yet occurred on that drought-starved, fire-scorched land.


If there’s a landslide, the UC Davis researchers want to see how nature does it rather than people. So, for the good of the land, people need to stay out. Were they allowed in, they’d have to be trusted to stay only on the trails so that nature can do what nature does. Therefore, because people are ever so trustworthy, the canyon remains closed to the public.

Or so says the sign on the padlocked gate.

We saw two hikers that day who ignored the signs and padlock, and marched right on in, clearly too special to follow the rules, which were obviously meant for everyone else. And besides, they have a right to be there.

No. They don’t.

Jeffrey confirmed to me that anyone on the property while it is closed to the public is trespassing. That said, there aren’t any canyon police tazing trespassers and hauling them away, so obeying the “closed” signs relies on the integrity of the human conscience. In other words, the “it’s all about me” types will still go tromping right in, because the canyon belongs to them and screw everybody else, and that goes double for Mother Nature.

As we headed out, my own little personal misanthropic whirlpool began spinning. (It sounds a lot like “people suck, people suck, people suck.”) But just then, we spotted a pretty little black pipevine swallowtail fluttering around (of course) pipevines. We stopped and watched as she flitted here and there, being quite choosey about where to lay her precious eggs, and therein, I found consolation: Nature knows. It knows how to survive, and thrive, and heal.

Even a blackened hellscape can recover, one tender shoot at a time … if humans will just stand back and leave it alone. Nature doesn’t need our help. It never has.

— Email Debra DeAngelo at; read more of her work at and

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