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CHARRED CANYON OAKS SHOW SIGNS OF SURVIVAL.

Byline: Eugene Tong Staff Writer

SANTA CLARITA - Despite the annual baptism by wildfire, the oak tree groves surrounding the city have continued to flourish, both as support for the local ecosystem and as fodder for popular imagination.

The blaze that blackened more than 108,000 acres from Val Verde to Moorpark in Ventura County last month also left behind thousands of charred oaks.

According to Rorie Skei of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, who surveyed Towsley and Pico canyons last week, the damage was apparent throughout the 15,000 acres in the Santa Susana canyons that the agency manages.

``It's a mixed bag,'' said Skei, the group's chief deputy director. ``Lots of areas are very thoroughly burned and scorched; some are just singed. And there are some pockets that appeared to be unscathed.''

But it will be several months before the true impact of the fires is revealed, as surviving trees seal their wounds and spread new growth from their blackened exteriors.

``We'll be watching the progression of the recovery,'' Skei said. ``This fire was clearly a very serious blow to the Santa Susana Mountains, for the habitats and for diversity.''

This cycle of death and life is practically an annual rite for the oak groves in these passes and canyons. While some trees are killed outright, others will thrive because of the fires.

``(Wildfire) kills the underbrush, which reduces competition,'' said Paul Edelman, the conservancy's deputy director of natural resources. ``And there are other trees that were burnt so badly, but they just sprout back at the stump.''

Over the 50,000 years they have inhabited Southern California, oak trees have adapted to the routine brush fires that plague the region. An outer bark at least half an inch thick protects the trees' interior from heat and cold, while expansive root systems keep them well-grounded in wind and rain.

``It's a history of co-evolution with fire,'' said Frank Hovore, a local biological consultant. ``If you're redwood or an oak tree and you plan to live for 300 years, you have to be well-adapted to survive.''

But it could be difficult for some trees to emerge from a conflagration, Edelman said.

``Like any other wound, it's a race between the bad guys and the healing process,'' he said. ``The trees would have to put an inordinate amount of energy into sealing themselves up again instead of dropping new acorns.''

Meantime, trees' resilience provides scientists with insights into ecological history, Edelman said.

``If there is any charring on the bark or if their branches limp up, a fire's been through there,'' Edelman said. ``If there is a very hot fire, the bottom of the trunk would have a cavity there. ... It just gives you an idea of what an area has gone through.''

Through history, oaks have inspired nature lovers and offered communities an identity, a sense of place. From inspiring dreams of gold to providing nourishment for the region's early Indian population, the oak is an emblem on the city of Santa Clarita's seal even as it continues to spark feuds between developers and environmentalists.

And oak trees remain a cornerstone of the local ecosystem.

``In the corridors and canyons, they provide for deer shade and nesting habitat for a lot of birds,'' Skei said.

Eugene Tong, (661) 257-5253

eugene.tong(at)dailynews.com

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3 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2 -- color) Above, Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority ranger Jody Thomas inspects East Canyon's scorched oaks, at right.

(3) Oak trees stand out in a blackened Santa Clarita hillside Monday. Despite the wildfires' severity, the oaks will survive.

David R. Crane/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 11, 2003
Words:603
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