On New Year’s Day, my partner and I set out for a hike at one of our local Southern California parks. Nature lovers that we are, it’s our traditional way to start a new year, setting an uplifting tone for the days to come.
It was a bright, beautiful morning, with a clarity and energy that beckoned, despite the blast of surprisingly icy air that hit me when I first opened the door. (Yes, it can get rather cold here.)
Our destination: Santiago Oaks Regional Park in the city of Orange, about a 40-minute drive from our coastal community. We like its varied network of trails and the peaceful, removed feeling it maintains, although it borders a residential neighborhood not far from busy urban areas.
We had last visited during California’s 2017 wildflower season “super bloom,” which I wrote about here. On that early April day, Santiago’s verdant trails looked like this with a profusion of wildflowers everywhere, including scores of these bright yellow blossoms and the elegant mariposa lily:
Mariposa Lily and buds
Several months later, in October 2017, a fire swept through four Orange County parks, damaging more than 7,000 acres. Santiago Oaks was one of them. In footage on the TV news, the lush landscape we’d hiked looked like a charred wasteland.
Happily, Santiago was able to reopen in December 2017, although several trails were closed for fire recovery. We were eager to see what it looked like now, more than a year after the reopening. How was the rehabilitation going? And what was the park like in winter?
An Impressive Renewal Underway
We enjoy Santiago’s hilly terrain, lush natural scenery and views, and our New Year’s Day visit was cheering. As we hiked familiar trails and explored some new ones, we saw many roped-off areas like this one where fire recovery continues:
In all of them, there was significant new green growth, side by side with the lingering signs of the fire’s destruction: trees crowned with blackened leaves, charred bushes and branches, the scorched remains of cactus plants.
We saw nothing resembling the burnt wasteland of months ago. Nature had made an impressive comeback, and everywhere we looked its work was ongoing. This abundant landscape is an example:
Even trees that bear the marks of fire have healthy green leaves or autumn color, and around them the ground is thick with green.
With their vibrant greenery, some parts of the park seemed virtually untouched by the fire. Only the telltale signs of charred branches, or leaves blackened and crumpled from the intense heat testify to its passing.
About the Natural Recovery Process
Fire is a natural and essential component of Southern California ecosystems. Historically, natural and human-caused fires have helped to select types of vegetation that depend on periodic fires for their existence. Plants in these ecosystems have developed adaptions that allow them to survive and reestablish themselves after a fire.
As Santiago Oaks park information explains, periodic fires can provide the opportunity for native seeds and new plant growth to receive sun, water and nutrients.
Though burned landscapes may appear lifeless, the information points out, natural recovery is already underway. By the time of our visit the strength of that recovery process was evident.
Charred cactus pads and healthy new growth were juxtaposed along the trails, and those yellow blossoms, so prolific during the super bloom, were springing up in considerable masses amid the fire-blackened branches of other plants.
The Park in Winter
Previously, we’d visited Santiago in the intense heat of summer or the temperate spring. Hiking the park in winter we experienced that California phenomenon of living in multiple seasons at once. Winter and Spring were dancing together in that quality of light that can be so challenging to describe.
California light always has a clarity like nowhere else, but in winter it seems to be more intense, with a hard edge, a glassy, diamond-like brilliance. The park looked wonderful in that light, with the sun making the trees sparkle, turning the leaves of fresh new plants translucent, enhancing the green of the hills, the blue of the sky.
When we set out, the cold was piercing. As we walked the trails in the warmth of the sun, it felt pleasingly fresh and enlivening. I wanted to shed some of those layers I was wearing. I stuffed my useless gloves in my pockets – no more frozen fingers fumbling with the camera.
This was not the barren, dormant landscape that generally characterizes winter. The natural world was full of life. California sunflowers were beginning to appear as if it were early spring, and that red-tipped shrub that began this post stood out as a colorful symbol of renewal.
For us, in this season of rain and rejuvenation, the signs of nature’s welcome resurgence were everywhere, the happy dance of Winter and Spring quickened by the ongoing effects of the fire.
Have you observed natural renewal after a fire or been part of the recovery effort? What is your favorite local or regional park? Please leave a comment.
See the Santiago Oaks Regional Park website for more information.
Copyright M. Vincent 2019. All photos copyright M. Vincent.