Entering Burned Area. Trees may fall at any time. Potential hazards include: fallen trees, flash flooding and debris flows. Do not linger under large burned trees. Avoid this area during high winds. Be alert for falling trees.
So say the signs on some Angeles National Forest trails, like a warning on one of those commercials for a product that holds loose dentures in place but comes with the risk of a sudden loss of vision, fatal bleeding and other afflictions lasting more than four hours. And for the same reason: a lawyered-up bureaucracy terrified that, should anything go wrong, they might be blamed for it.
Obviously, people who plan a picnic under the tallest trees during a gale in an area weakened by fire are unlikely to change their minds when they see such a sign though, as close readers of the Valley Sun will know, a heavy tree crashed without warning within a few minutes of me hiking under it during the recent spell of Santa Ana winds.
It is a good reminder, however, to look around at the results of the apocalyptic 2009 Station fire, a natural disaster few of us have seen equaled.
A few days after that fire I walked down the trail that drops steeply into the Arroyo Seco from Angeles Crest Highway and saw what had been a profusely green canyon was now bare brown earth covered by a choking layer of gray ash dotted with blackened tree stumps. Every few minutes rocks, unsupported by burned-out vegetation, slithered down the valley sides.
The only signs of life were a few crows fighting viciously over burned scraps and colonies of ants, busy as ever. Everything else had fled or died. In its arid hopelessness it was like Milton's vision of hell.
Despite the scriptures, I have always thought the idea of the meek inheriting the earth was a long shot: they seem far too — well — meek to run the whole show. Ants, however — purposeful, tireless, organized and now, it seems, fireproof — look like a much better bet.
I knew forests recover after the most destructive fires but, looking at that dusty desert, it was hard to visualize. Now, less than five years later, all over this huge area the lifeless stumps remain but the undergrowth is more luxuriant than ever and, on some little-used side trails, close to impenetrable.
In the Arroyo itself, the little stream — one of whose charms was that even after months without a drop of rain, there it was, skipping along and sparkling in the sunlight — is now so completely grown over that for long stretches you can't see it at all and only a cheerful gurgle gives it away.
We have lost a lot. There is a consolation, however, and one that overrides all the disappointments: once more, it seems, whatever the obstacles, life springs eternal.
REG GREEN'S website is www.nicholasgreen.org.