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By Miriam Raftery

House finch

May 1, 2009 (Lakeside)—Towering wild lilacs line trails at Silverwood Wildlife Sanctuary in Lakeside, where signs of new life abound five and a half years after the Cedar Fire. New trunks sprout forth from charred oaks. Wildflowers abound—including monkey flowers and golden eardrops—species never seen here before the fire. Bluebirds, gold finches, juncos, house wrens and nuthatches are among the many species of birds at feeders and bird houses in the preserve owned by the Audobon Society, which is also home to woodpeckers, hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes and bobcats.

“This was all totally burned,” said Lois Betts, a volunteer who guided me to the new Frank Gander Native Education Center on a visit in April. Less than 1% has been replanted, she estimates, yet the land is resplendent in new growth. “A lot of California native vegetation only reseeds in fire.”

Inside are Native American artifacts as well as displays of birds, plants and animals in the area. A microscope enables school children who visit to get close-up views of lichen, fungi and hummingbird nests.

Caretaker Phil Lambert assesses fire-damaged bark on an oak tree

A short walk up a nearly level trail leads to an observation area where guests can relax on hand-hewn log seats and watch birds at feeding stations nestled beneath shaded oaks. Above,  Phil Lambert’ resides in a caretaker’s house rebuilt after the fire.

“I lost everything,” said Lambert, whose home and vehicle were destroyed. But he finds joy in the replenishment of the land and its inhabitants.

Rodents survived the fire by hiding underground, he recalled. “But most of the predators died off. They ran as fast as they could, then dropped dead after the fire.” Since then, rodents overpopulated, attracting new predators from surrounding areas. “We get a pair of coyotes every day. There was a bobcat here last night,” he said, noting scat left beside a pond. Signs of a mountain lion have also been found in recent months.

Ecologists and scientists have been studying the preserve to learn more about the aftermath of fires. “These firestorms are new types of fires,” Lambert explained. “Firestorms are typically never started in nature, because there is no precipitation in the atmosphere during Santa Ana winds. These firestorms are usually man-made, or linked to man.”

Nightshade - 1 of many wildflowers abloom at Silverwood Wildlife Sanctuary

The results are more devastating than natural fires of the past. “Flames actually shot out straight from the wind, superheating everything,” he recalled. “There was a massive amount of dead biomass; this was a very intense fire. These firestorms are so intense that they are killing everything above ground, except the oaks.”

Although charred outer layers of oak bark are dead, many oaks here have sprouted new basal trunks at the base. “Eventually, the old trunks will disappear and new ones take over,” said Lambert, adding that it’s hard to know the date of oaks because of this phenomenon. Older manzanitas with foot-thick trunks are still recovering.

Some birds that were rare before were enticed back by insects after the blaze. “They prefer to breed in burned areas,” Lambert noted. “That’s something we’ve recently learned.”

One benefit of the fire was that it exposed ruins of a settler’s cabin that may once have housed a cavalry officer. Native American artifacts were also found.. “We determined that this used to be a hunting site,” said caretaker Phil Lambert. “I found spearheads and arrowheads after the fire.”

lesser goldfinch at feeder

Lambert led us on a tour along a trail, pointing out buckwheat, wild cucumber, mountain mahogany and chemise, also known as greasewood. Breaking off a lilac bloom, he demonstrated how suds form that can be used in soap. Sugar bush, a member of the sumac family, can be used in a fruity drink.

“Deer grass is significant in helping the area come back. It takes over a hillside and pulls nitrogen from the air, and puts it back in soil,” he said. Other plants product colorful blooms, such as purple nightshades, and sweet fragrances, such as chaparral sweet peas. White-flowering currants produce berries consumed by robins and cedar waxwing birds.

This season marked a welcome milestone for one species of lilacs, the Lakeside ceanothus. “It’s found only in this area. All the adults died in the Cedar Fire,” Lambert said. “For most of the population, this is the first year it’s blooming and producing seeds.” Lambert also discovered 13 new species of spiders that nobody ever recorded in the area.

Silverwood started as an 85-acre preserve in 1965, when Harry Woodward donated land to the San Diego Audobon Society. Since then, the sanctuary has grown to 740 acres and is run entirely through donations, including money from Allstate Insurance to build a new observation center after the fire. The name, Silverwood, has long been thought to reflect the silvery sheen of oak trees. But after the fire, Lambert came up with his own theory. “The skeletal remains of wood here has a silver sheen after it dies.”

Wild Lilacs

The sanctuary is also home to a memorial honoring the 12 Lakeside residents who died in the Cedar Fire. The City of Lakeside turned down the memorials offered by the Lakeside Historical Society, so Silverwood took the displays, which also include maps and data on the fire.

Silverwood Wildlife Preserve is open for tours with school children and other groups on weekdays. The preserve is open to the public on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with guided tours at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.. Visitors may also hike unescorted on several trails, but are required to register first. Audubon members can visit the site on weekday mornings from 8 to 12 a.m.

“Every third Wednesday we have an Aubodon bird count, and everybody who is willing can participate,” Lambert added.

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