to the Santa Monica Mountains. It was the worst fire ever recorded there; Burned 150 square miles, including about 88 percent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA). Two of the National Park Service’s (NPS) 13 mountain lions died. The burned spots were an ash gray and black moonscape with no visible life immediately after Woolsey as far as the eye could see. Many local residents who saw this despaired of whether nature would ever return.
Three years later, life returns through a mixture of natural recreation and indigenous plant restoration by humans.
Mark Mendelsohn, biologist who heads the long-term vegetation monitoring program NPS on 300 plots, explained in a telephone interview that the vegetation has so far recovered very well due to the amount of rain in 2019 and 2020 – among other things, annual plants and native shrubs, sage and chaparral.
He said that although 2021 was extremely dry and a bad year for grasses and wildflowers, “The chaparral areas still looked pretty green and we hope that the previous rains have really accelerated their recovery and that they are fine.”
The biologist said the upcoming rainy season was “critical” for plants, the recovery continued, noting that although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently predicted another dry La Niña year, predictions from another agency say it actually has above-average rainfall and one lower than normal number of Santa Ana wind events could be coming.
The bank areas near streams are a “mixed bag” in terms of recreation, Mendelsohn stated. It will take decades for seedlings of large trees such as plane trees and oaks to regain their full size, but many of the existing oak trees survived the fire and have grown back.
“They are not easily killed by a single year of drought and are doing quite well,” he said.
NPS restoration biologist Joey Algiers leads volunteer efforts to “rewild” the Santa Monica Mountains, focusing on fire areas. Nonprofit Re: wild has partnered with the National Park Service and Snap, Inc. to plant 100,000 native trees, grasses, plants, and shrubs, including sagebrush and giant wild rye, between 2021 and 2023.
NPS will monitor newly planted vegetation for the next three years and also monitor sensitive habitats to ensure invasive species do not spread – a consequence of forest fires.
All of the thousands of new plantings must come from somewhere, and replacement plant cultivation has been ramped up significantly to restore the extensive burned areas.
“Plants used in initial restoration must grow and adapt quickly and be important for birds, pollinators and erosion control,” said Antonio Sanchez, head of the local nursery. “There is now a big push to grow more native coastal, valley and bush oaks because they are relatively fire resistant and important to the ecosystem. Paramount Ranch, Cheeseboro Canyon and Rancho Sierra Vista are the areas where the nursery is currently most focused on replanting – the “big three”. … outstanding [Ranch] could accommodate up to a million plants. “
Rosi Dagit, senior biologist in the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains, commented, “One of the most unusual effects of Woolsey has been the severe loss of vegetation on the banks.
“Bank corridors usually burn less intensely, but perhaps because of the previous seven year drought and the effects of invasive beetles they were more vulnerable this time around and entire creek corridors lost all of their canopy,” Dagit continued, later adding, “The loss of critical habitat for the spring basins for western pond turtles and endangered red legged frogs were catastrophic. ” Both species were still holding on with help.
Scientists were still coming across examples of animals adapting to the environment after the fire. Last April, three bobcat kittens and their mother were documented living in the den of a large oak tree in an area that was intensely burned by the Woolsey fire. An NPS scientist said at the time that it was very unusual for a bobcat to nest in a tree, but the mother must have chosen this location because so much of the area’s natural habitat has been destroyed.
13 mountain lions are currently being tracked with radio collars – about as many as before the fire.
Mendelsohn said there were no specific scientific studies of the comeback of smaller mammals and birds, although he observed that wood rats struggled to re-establish themselves after their woody nests were burned.