Stebbins Cold Canyon recovering from fire

Pass through the padlocked gate at the entrance to the Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, and you’ll surely have a déjà vu experience. The area seems familiar, but also foreign. Alien, even. As far as the eye can see, charred skeletons of trees and bushes stretch upwards like bony, black hands from a grave in a horror movie. You must look down to discover that despite its appearance, the entire area truly is springing back to life — at the ground level. The hills are blanketed in fresh green grass and native plants and wildflowers, and at the base of many of the burned trees and bushes, new branches reach upward.

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Pass through the padlocked gate at the entrance to the Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, and you’ll surely have a déjà vu experience. The area seems familiar, but also foreign. Alien, even.

As far as the eye can see, charred skeletons of trees and bushes stretch upwards like bony, black hands from a grave in a horror movie.

You must look down to discover that despite its appearance, the entire area truly is springing back to life — at the ground level. The hills are blanketed in fresh green grass and native plants and wildflowers, and at the base of many of the burned trees and bushes, new branches reach upward.

Jeffrey Clary, reserve director for UC Davis — which owns the 578-acre Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve near Winters — explains that the area isn’t merely a park, it is a protected research site. Following the Wragg fire last July, which turned thousands of acres and all of Stebbins Cold Canyon to ash, at least the research didn’t go up in smoke.

Now, researchers are studying how the canyon will heal and repair itself.

This is why UCD crews and volunteers have done very little to clean up the burned areas, aside from rebuilding wooden stairs and clearing trees that fell across the walking trails. It’s a rare opportunity to see how nature will react after such a disaster.

In order for that research to happen, however, human interference must be kept to a minimum, so the canyon is closed to the public until mid-May, when it is believed the ground will be stable enough, and the brush large enough, to withstand parades of human feet.

Some particularly sensitive areas are cordoned off to keep people out, and will remain so after the canyon reopens.

Clary explains that one of the main concerns is that hikers will wander off the established trails because the fire cleared all of the brush away and large expanses of green hillsides seem to beckon hikers to explore the “new” ground. He says that’s undesirable because that ground was protected by thick brush for decades and the soil is soft and airy. Human feet would compact that soil and disturb the natural recovery.

“We all have to be extra-respectful,” Clary says of the canyon as it recovers. He adds that besides the fire, the area was already stressed by drought.

“Fire after four years of drought and high temperatures is a test to see if these types of wilderness will lead to bigger changes in landscapes than we used to see,” he says. “We’re all on the watch for transformations, like will the blue oaks come back?”

Pulling weeds

One expected result of the fire will be a resurgence of weeds, like star thistle, that don’t belong in the Stebbins Cold Canyon area. Clary says work days are planned during which volunteers will go in and pull a particular type of weed, focusing on just that one, and then a different one on another day, until Mother Nature takes over on weed-control duty.

“Over time, native plants will shade the weeds out,” he says.

Right now, there’s almost no shade at all in the canyon — something Clary says summertime hikers need to be aware of when the temperatures soar. Out on the Ridge Trail, there won’t be trees under which to get a break from the sun, so hikers need to plan for that, as well as bring ample water with them to prevent dehydration and heat exhaustion.

While hikers may miss all that shade, Clary says wildflowers don’t share that sentiment. Wildflowers are in abundance now because they have sunshine as well as plenty of water, not only from recent rain but also because the burned trees aren’t soaking up all the water they used to.

The ash from burned trees and brush also serves as fertilizer for wildflowers, which are taking advantage of this unique situation to thrive.

Ash is good and bad

Wildflowers love ash, Clary says, but ash isn’t quite as wonderful for the streams themselves, as they trickle down the slopes of the hills into the main creek, which is running much higher and faster than usual in the canyon.

The sound of rushing water is everywhere, and while that sound is quite joyful to most ears, Clary points out that there’s a downside: The usually clear water is muddy with silt and ash, and thick mounds of silt can be seen on the floor of the stream and collecting on rocks and boulders in the water.

Sadly, Clary says, the ash isn’t good news for animal life and fish, and as the rains continue, the ash will continue washing downstream into Putah Creek and Lake Solano.

“It’s obviously changed things for (creatures) that live in the water,” he says. “It’s not the crystal-clear water we had before.”

Someday, of course, the water will be clear again — but will Stebbins Cold Canyon return to the way it was? Clary seems doubtful.

“I don’t think we can presume that things will operate as they have before,” he says, hinting that people should not expect the reserve to look exactly as they remember. As the area recovers, he says, “It will be in a way it’s not been before.”

However, that doesn’t mean hikers won’t enjoy the area when it opens. It will just be different.

Life bursts forth

Right now, all the “activity” is below the knee: Tiny wildflowers and plants are everywhere, and patches of miner’s lettuce, lamb’s ear and pipevine are thriving. Bright orange poppies dot the landscape.

If you look down, the area is anything but dead: Life is bursting forth everywhere.

Another thing that will be thriving is the bane of many a hiker’s existence: poison oak. Although humans typically aren’t fans of poison oak, the plant thrives after a fire and actually serves to protect the tender new plants as an area recovers. Clary pointed out some shiny patches along the path and noted that when the leaves are shiny, poison oak is at its most irritating.

Other signs of life returning to the area are animals. Although the fire seems to have put a dent in the newt population, Clary says the deer population is booming.

“We almost never saw signs of deer. Now we’re seeing a lot of deer tracks and deer nibbles.”

Not so for the newts, which live in the pools and burrow underground.

“We’ve seen a few, but there used to be dozens,” Clary says.

With all this change in the canyon, there’s not much that people can do to help, except exercise patience. Clary says many people have come forward to volunteer time and money to help repair the fire damage, and he’s extremely grateful for the outpouring of goodwill, concern and donations.

There may be some grant money available in the future to help restore the canyon, and future work days will be announced.

“I can’t emphasize enough how willing people have been to help,” Clary says.

For now, however, the best way people can help is by leaving nature alone to heal herself, and by staying out of the area while it is closed and staying on the trails when it opens — no matter how tempting those meadows may seem.

— Reach Debra DeAngelo at debra@wintersexpress.com

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