Chronicling impacts of 2013 Morgan Fire on Mount Diablo
By Lou Fancher
For 18 months, Joan Hamilton sat next to life and death on Mount Diablo.
Sent on a long-term reporting assignment by Bay Nature magazine to chronicle the mountain's recovery after the 3,100-acre Morgan Fire in September 2013, the Bay Area-based nature writer and photographer remembers the fire as if it was yesterday.
Speaking to an audience at a monthly Sierra Club meeting at the Ygnacio Valley Library recently, Hamilton said, "I was working on an audio guide to Perkins Canyon at the time the assignment came in. I heard on the radio that my subject (the canyon) had burned up. A spark caused a fire that whooshed up the mountain. It burned so angrily it almost looked like Mount Diablo was a volcano."
Five days after the fire began, Hamilton was on the mountain experiencing the aftermath. The slopes were still smoking, the scent putrid, fire retardant like sticky ooze coating the land, the oaks charred "as if they'd been in a toaster oven."
But, there were also insects she'd never seen before: charcoal beetles that were attracted to the smoke and poised to plant their eggs in smoldering trees.
"The oaks were burned all the way down to their roots. Erosion was a worry. It looked like the whole north slope would come down into Perkins Creek if there was even a brief rain."
On the ninth day after the fire, it did rain, and Hamilton saw shoots of grass emerge. In six weeks, chaparral sprouted from the roots of tree stumps.
"Other plants adapted similarly," she said.
On her monthly visits, Hamilton said she marveled at nature's rapid recovery. Rodents were turning over the blackened soil before it had fully cooled; seeds dormant for decades sprouted; "fire followers," including golden eardrops, flame poppies and whispering bells bloomed.
"Bulb plants like lilies went crazy," Hamilton said. "Whispering bells were a pervasive plant that first year. Kellogg's climbing snapdragon came back after 80 years, sleepy catchfly after 125 years."
In all, Hamilton said 28 "opportunists" benefited from the soil's post-fire nutrients and the extra sunlight. She counted 17 fire followers that germinated in response to the heat, smoke and ash.
Scientists interested in the phenomenon became part of the people flocking to the mountain.
"Fleeting Abundance," a three-year study conducted by researchers Heath Bartosh and Brian Peterson, earmarked 50 plots of land for observation. By the second year, marking the plots was difficult because so much growth had occurred.
"Morning glories had grown all over so they were tripping on the vines," she recalled, also noting the unexpected beauty of chia and other blossoming plants.
Wildlife experienced unique change along with the altered plant life: biologists filmed and recorded the adaptive activities of black-tailed deer, wild pigs, coyotes, and more. An entomologist noted twice the number of beetles in burned-out areas, and observed 16 species of moths never recorded before in Contra Costa County.
"The largest insect on Mount Diablo is now a moth with a four-inch wingspan," said Hamilton.
Of course, not all the news Hamilton shared was about recovery. Gray pines don't stump-sprout, so the trees scorched by the fire were dead or dying. But their seedlings, already in-process and given 40-60 years, will grow, and gave Hamilton hope that fuels her passion for future visits.
"The fun part is that nobody knows what will happen next. Will the bulb plants have a fine year? Will new species be found?" she asked.
Showing photos of a black, barren slope taken immediately after the fire and then images of the same location a year later -- the vivid, green grassland sprinkled with blue and gold flowering plants -- it was easy to believe Hamilton's concluding observations.
"The drama was greater than usual, but the mountain is always changing. Talk about resilience: there was no long-term damage."