Updated 8:45 p.m. July 31 with additional trail information from the reserve's website.
By Dateline staff
UC Davis’ Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve and its trails are closed to the public until further notice, the result of the Wragg Fire that swept through much of the reserve last week.
The 576-acre reserve off Highway 128 near Lake Berryessa was almost the first thing in the wildfire’s path as the flames moved south and east from the lake’s southern tip, starting in midafternoon July 22. Early on, firefighters set a backfire on the canyon floor.
“There are very likely damaged trees that can drop limbs, trail steps that have burned away, unstable soils and potential landslides,” said Jeffrey Clary, director of Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, explaining the closure.
“We’re also concerned that hikers may be tempted to cut new trails on erosion-prone slopes, because there won’t be any vegetation to act as natural fencing. So we’re asking everyone to help us during our restoration period by respecting the closure.”
Additional information from the Stebbins Cold Canyon website: Land to the south of the reserve (including the Tuleyome parcel) largely escaped the fire, but trails to that property are currently inaccessible. Trails sustained much damage and are currently blocked by fallen trees. Significant trail restoration will be necessary to prevent erosion when rains arrive this fall.
Fire's intensity 'highly variable'
Escorted by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, Clary and other reserve employees posted the closure signs Friday afternoon before authorities reopened Highway 128 west of Winters.
“It was apparent that the intensity of the fire was highly variable,” said Clary, describing what he saw from the entrance to the canyon. “Many of the larger trees near the seasonal stream appear to have survived the blaze. Farther up the slopes, the shrubby chaparral vegetation is scorched to the ground. Those species are amazingly adapted to fire — they will be back in no time.”
He said he and others are concerned about how many blue oaks may have been lost. “Many California oak species seem to be having a tough time regenerating, and fires like this can cause conversion of oak woodland to grassland,” Clary said.
UC Davis faculty and Natural Reserve System staff and their Stebbins Cold Canyon neighbors are working to formally assess the fire’s impact on trees, vegetation, wildlife and trails.
Those neighbors — the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the nonprofit conservation organization Tuleyome — already are partnering with Stebbins Cold Canyon to develop a larger vision for recreation and education in the area.
Even with the closure of Stebbins Cold Canyon to hiking, the reserve remains open to authorized research activities, given the importance of understanding the impacts of fire on the regional ecosystem, Clary said.
Entomology professor Phil Ward, chair of the faculty committee that helps run the Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, visited the canyon on Sunday:
“There is already a surprising amount of wildlife activity in the burned areas,” he reported. “I saw six ant species foraging on fire-scarred ground, and western fence lizards scurrying about on burned rocky ridges. It is interesting to speculate how they eluded the heat and fire.”
Allie Weill and other graduate students run a citizen-science project at the reserve. “Our trained volunteer crews follow the timing of plant life cycles,” said Weill, a Ph.D. student in ecology, one of the project leaders. “Now we’ll be able to observe the timing of bud burst and flowering in the aftermath of a huge disturbance.”
The reserve’s future
Clary said the campus community and the general public will have plenty of opportunity to help with the canyon’s restoration — say, by volunteering for workdays, or by making donations for tools and materials — once the reserve and its partners have had a chance to put together an action plan.
Until then, Clary said, he hopes that fans of Stebbins Cold Canyon will be patient while the reserve is closed.
“This fire has been an unexpected shock, but we can end up with better trails and a stronger reserve community through the restoration process.”