A year after Station Fire, botanist, volunteers protect changing forest ecology

A volunteer for the Angeles National Forest picks up non-native Spanish broom seed pods and plants on Sunday, Aug. 22, 2010.
A volunteer for the Angeles National Forest picks up non-native Spanish broom seed pods and plants on Sunday, Aug. 22, 2010.
Molly Peterson/KPCC

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A year ago today, near a ranger station on the Angeles Crest Highway, the Station Fire began burning and didn't stop for months. The recovery of native plants within the Angeles National Forest has depended on scientific surveys and on volunteers pulling weeds in recent months.

Wearing green Nomex pants, the kind forest service staffers must wear in fire zones, mapping specialist Andrea Nick issues standard warnings about sun, dehydration, and heat cramps to volunteers.

The kind of people who show up in a Ralph's parking lot early on a Sunday morning to help eradicate invasive plants shrug off those warnings. They've come prepared, with gear and water, in high clearance vehicles. But an hour and a half later, up roads most people still can't travel, the breadth of the Station Fire's burn still stuns.

"We're standing in the Station Fire which was 160,000 acres," says botanist Katie Vinzant, standing at a turnout on the Angeles Forest Highway. "Every range you can see from here was burned. That's about a third of the Angeles National Forest."

Vinzant brings volunteers up here weekly.

Squinting into the sun, she slaps a sombrero on to her head, a cast-off from an Arcadia Mexican restaurant, patched with duct tape. It fits her slightly goofy, friendly personality.

"I keep meaning to put BOT SHOT across it," she says, a reference to the "hot shots" for fire, firefighters who drop into key spots. "We're the BOT SHOTS for weeds and plants," she laughs.

The hat is, after all, functional and, she says, necessary. At elevation, in August, she's giving her weed crew less grueling tasks than usual on this day.

"It's so hot right now, we decided to just go after the seed heads. They look like little snap peas, because this plant is in the pea family," she says. "The plant comes from Spain; that's why it's called Spanish broom."

She climbs up on the tailgate and rifles through a bag, finding gloves for volunteers.

"All-right! Here's a spanking new pair for you, my friend," she says to a quiet teenager.

The threat of the wrong plants spreading is one reason gates still lock off roads and swaths of forest behind them. Vinzant pulls black bags off a roll for a dozen volunteers cleaning up a little more road today.

Photo gallery slideshow of the Angeles National Forest

"Feels like we're going to pick up trash, doesn't it?" she says.

In a way, they are. In chaparral the five years after the fire are pivotal. Here the native chemise and manzanita bushes are sprouting again. Fire following wildflowers are thriving. Vinzant says Spanish broom plants can get in the way.

"I think a plant can produce 150,000 seeds at a time, so you can see how it just propagates, it explodes, it propagates," she says, her hands waving an imaginary explosion in the air.

Nearby, Tiernan Doyle's already at work. Wearing a Texas T-shirt and a Navy baseball cap, she's got tools on her belt: this is her second volunteer trip. Pulling seed pods isn't hard, she says, but takes care.

"They slide off," she says, demonstrating. "The worst is when you get a seed pod that's dried, you have to do those individually, so they don't propagate themselves by accident."

Doyle is a new transplant and now a master's candidate for landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona.

"I'd never been in a burned zone before so I wanted to try and help," she says.

Another volunteer loops a rope around Doyle to ease her up a slope.

Vinzant says the same steepness that challenged firefighting has slowed work replanting tree seedlings.

"You're talking slopes that are 70 percent at the top and you pretty much slide your way to the bottom."

Even on flatter terrain, big weeds take big effort and big orange tools.

Forest service mapping specialist Andrea Nick describes invasive plants with roots so long - 14 feet - they can double-dutch jump rope with them.

"You have to dig a foot or so around the whole plant and then basically this works with leverage," she says. "Then you get it around the plant. You latch it on at the base of the plant and you pop the plant out."

This work grew out of surveys done last fall by a team of federal scientists known as the Burned Area Emergency Response team. They've also funded a small crew this year to survey and remove plants in the Angeles forest's burned area. Vinzant says that's unusual, but insufficient.

Volunteers are welcome help, like a crew from Hathaway Sycamores in Pasadena. Fernando Navarro's the leader.

"I work at a group home with the kids and it's the first time coming out here," he says. Then he lowers his voice. "We have one that is known for ... arsonist ... so it's helping him out learning how to prevent fires."

Enthusiasm for volunteering has dropped off. Trouble is, the need hasn't.

Vinzant argues non-native grasses that can transform the ecology still need attention - and that's daunting.

"When every single drainage that we've gone in has tamarisk, which is one of the worst aquatic weeds you can have, sucks up gallons and gallons of water, it can dewater systems, when I'm finding it in every drainage where it was never before, that's scary," she says, shaking her head.

Project money for eliminating invading plants in burned areas runs out in mid-October, one year after the fire was contained. This road alone is 25 miles long, and Vinzant points to other spots that need work.

"You know, when I look at the map every day I become despondent," she says, laughing slightly. "We did two miles today but there's hundreds of miles left. We got something, I guess."

Vinzant hopes to pull all the weeds off this road in six more months. She says she'll also try for more project money to keep going.