A Return to ‘Life in the Burn Zone’

National Park Service ecologist Mark Mendelsohn pointing to the tiny new shoot of a native dudleya plant, one of the first signs of life in the burn zone of the Woolsey Fire.

The Woolsey Fire reduced more than 100,000 acres of the Santa Monica Mountains to a barren moonscape in November 2018. Local journalist and author Suzanne Guldimann documented nature’s recovery by taking upwards of 10,000 photos of plants and animals as they regrew and returned in upper Zuma and Trancas canyons and other parts of the Santa Monica Mountains. She shared her observations and images at a standing-room-only talk last Saturday at the King Gillette Ranch Visitor’s Center.

The talk, illustrated by her photos, began with the fire itself and its immediate aftermath—a desolate world of gray and black as far as the eye could see.

“Seeing the burn zone after the fire, it was hard to believe anything would ever live again,” Guldimann said, displaying images of the 2,400-foot-tall Zuma Ridge topped by 200-foot-tall flames as the fire came toward Malibu. “The winds were so strong, it created a fire tornado that came down from the sky.”

“At our house, the fire was on all sides; I’ve never seen anything like it,” she continued. Her family home was saved by a group of Point Dume neighbors fighting the flames with garden hoses. 

“After Armageddon,” Suzanne said, “nothing prepared me for the devastation I was about to see. Not a scrap of green could be seen anywhere across wide vistas. There was nothing but downed power lines and poles. It was all burned down to bare earth and rocks, even in riparian areas.”

Not long after, she went on a field trip for the press with Mark Mendelsohn, wildlife and plant ecologist with the National Park Service, to upper Trancas and Zuma canyons and, to her surprise, they found the starts of chaparral yucca and “a tiny new sprout of dudleya.” They found an owl pellet (undigested food that owls regurgitate) that contained the remains of a Jerusalem cricket. Some invasive reed species had started to grow and ravens flew overhead. There actually were signs of life.

“The ravens, known by some Native American tribes as ‘trickster’ spirits, are intelligent and adaptable. Seeing them was a real inspiration to me,” Suzanne said. 

She decided to keep documenting the mountains’ recovery.

“December was hard. Everywhere in the burn zone were the bones of animals that didn’t make it out, along with a surprising number of derelict vehicles that had once been covered by brush,” she described. “When the wind blew, there was the smell of ashes—it was like living in an ashtray.”

In January, when big rains came, she noticed a transformation “in the space of days.” At Rocky Oaks Park, the land began to turn green and she identified animal paw prints in the mud that included skunk, mice and a bobcat with a cub. Wild cucumber was already climbing and blossoming and the sumac, which also has a massive root system, was sprouting. She commented that those two plant species help stabilize the hillsides. Also observed were Coast Live Oaks sprouting from their roots as well as California quail.

In February, she found a live millipede on the ground and a beehive in a tree. 

“Padre’s shooting stars (a purple wildflower) covered the hillsides,” followed by California poppies, “In epic, Wizard of Oz quantities,” the reporter said. The wildflowers continued their “super bloom” for months, with Guldimann offering images and lists of all the species she documented.

“I’ve never seen a super bloom like we had. It was a once in a lifetime experience,” she said.

In April, she noted several bird species (Nashville Warbler, Western Bluebird and Say’s Phoebe), all insectivores, obviously finding enough insects to eat. There were hummingbird-like white-lined sphinx moths and the first fire poppies bloomed—“the Holy Grail of fire flower followers” because they only bloom after a wildfire. “And they’re so delicate, the petals can fall off if you so much as breathe on them,” Guldimann noted. 

In May, she saw additional “fire followers,” as well as still abundant fields of wildflowers covered with bees, a pair of ravens with offspring, and “an abundance of toads” which seemed to like the “silted-up creeks.”

Among the many notable sightings in June were Humboldt’s Lily, “the queen of the Santa Monica Mountains’ wildflowers,” and an endangered Crotch’s bumblebee. Wildflowers continued to bloom through August. In the fall months, she noted spiders, dragonflies and rabbit and lizard tracks. By the end of November, there was new growth on the California sycamores. 

For a current schedule of National Park Service and other agency events in the Santa Monica Mountains, visit samofund.org/events.