The Amazing Story of Fire Recovery

by Cliff and Gabi McLean

(reprinted from the Watershed Wise, Vol. 13 No. 3, March, 2011, The Los Angeles & San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council)

Yellow-throated Phacelia
Yellow-throated Phacelia, an abundant fire-follower the first spring after a chaparral fire
Photo by Gabi McLean

Since the Altadena fire in 1993, we have been intrigued by fire recovery, and have followed and documented it by photographing the recovering vegetation over the years. We observed recovery after several fires, in particular the Curve/Williams fire, other smaller fire in the San Gabriel Mountains, and then the recent Station fire, from outside the closed Angeles National Forest areas.

Our main focus has been the chaparral where plants naturally recover through either growing anew from seeds (some of them decades old) or resprouting from their roots. Some species are limited to one of those methods, others can do both. Some trees also resprout from the trunk and unburned branches, or from burls under ground.

We also observed a progression in the type of vegetation throughout the recovery years: in the first year, we can enjoy annuals in enormous numbers and variety, since many of the annual “fire followers” can be seen only in the first year after a fire. Many of these species are considered rare or uncommon for exactly the same reason. The second year brings out the flowers of the perennials that often need an extra year to grow before developing flowers. During those first two or three years, the vegetation is still low to the ground, and the only larger signs of recovery are the occasional trees that are resprouting from the trunk, especially the oaks. In the third year, perennials and shrubs become dominant, like the poodle dog bush, the bush poppy, and deerweed.

In the following years, the dominant shrubs in the chaparral have sufficiently recovered that one can identify them from a distance. Laurel sumac grows very fast, and ceanothus grows much more slowly, but the shrub oaks, the holly-leaf cherry, the coffee berry and others, can reach four to five feet in just a few years. Full recovery is completed within 20 years, when the chaparral vegetation covers the hillsides so densely that from the distance, there is no ground visible, and annuals only grow at the edges where there is enough light.

Words cannot describe the beauty and resilience that is so obvious in the recovery. The challenges to recovery are erosion and the invasion of alien weeds, particularly grasses and forbs. The photographs of our observations become a primary tool for conveying the remarkable recovery of chaparral, without any help from us.

[Note: To see more fire-follower photos and other articles about Station Fire recovery in the same issue of Watershed Wise, see]

Keywords: Gabi McLean, Cliff McLean, Gabriele McLean, Clifford McLean, Nature at Hand, Gabi Horn, Gabriele Horn, Plants of the San Gabriel Mountains: Foothills and Canyon, Interpretive Guide on CD, Plants of the San Gabriel Foothills and Canyons, California native plants, Pasadena, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, San Gabriel Valley, Southern California, Covina, natural, nature photography, photograph, environmental education, naturalist, docent, hike, hiking, CD-ROM, California native garden, gardening, flowers, wildflowers, San Gabriel Mountains, Angeles National Forest, Station Fire, fire recovery