"After inferno, Mt. Diablo bursts with long-hidden flowers; Diablo undergoes rebirth this spring following wildfire"
2014-05-14 by Kevin Fagan for "San Francisco Chronicle" [http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/After-inferno-Mt-Diablo-bursts-with-long-hidden-5475899.php]:
(05-14) 10:29 PDT DANVILLE -- Heath Bartosh trudged through the arid spread of blackened twigs, bare dirt and tiny spots of greenery that used to be a densely covered slope of brush on Mount Diablo - before last summer's inferno of a wildfire roared over it, that is. Suddenly he stopped. He let out a happy little cry.
"Ah, I've been looking for these!" he exclaimed, bending down to peer at two 8-inch green stalks poking out of the soil with tiny yellow flowers and spiky leaves. He plucked them, carefully pressed them between pieces of cardboard in his sample bag and labeled them: "blazing star."
Mark down one milestone for modern plant history.
The flower Bartosh picked was the first blazing star he'd seen in his study of the aftereffects of the sweeping 2013 Morgan Fire. That means it was the first time anyone has seen a blazing star on the East Bay's biggest mountain in almost 40 years.
The pretty little bloom is what is known as a "fire follower," a flower that grows only after an extra-hot wildfire has devastated a landscape. Such flowers need spring to start popping up - and that's just what is happening on the steep inclines of Mount Diablo right now.
For nature and flower lovers, the show is fascinating.
Blast of color -
Anyone willing to haul at least halfway up Summit Road on the 3,849-foot mountain near Danville can find vibrant carpets of white, purple, orange, magenta and yellow that haven't been seen since the last big Mount Diablo fire, in 1977, and possibly not since the biggest one before that, in 1931.
The array, which can be seen just off the road in spots, includes the light-yellow-petal whispering bells, Brewer's red maids that actually are purple, and golden eardrops, a delicate little flower whose petals poke up like towers, then drop down like floppy ears.
It's a bit tougher to come across the fire poppy, whose golden petals are more crinkly than the California poppy, almost like papier-mache. Right now they're being found only in steep canyons on the eastern side of the mountain above Morgan Territory Road.
Botanist Heath Bartosh shows a fire poppy he picked along an eastern ridge of Mount Diablo, where vegetation is returning.
'Maximum overdrive' -
Get there fast to see them all, though.
The fire poppy disappears in about two weeks, and many of these flowers will be gone in a year. By two years, the fire followers show will be done, and they'll stay away until the next big blaze creates just the right amount of heat, smoke and ash to cause the flowers' dormant seeds to burst open once again.
"Right now on this mountain, what we are seeing is biodiversity in maximum overdrive," said Bartosh, 37, a senior botanist with Nomad Ecology of Martinez who is helping lead the main study of the mountain's postfire vegetation. "But it's a quick overdrive.
"These fire followers have this short niche in time, and then - boom - they're gone again for many years," Bartosh said. "I might not even be around next time my 9-year-old son, Joaquin, gets a chance to seem them again."
The Morgan Fire, sparked by target-shooting, charred 3,111 acres on the north and southeast slopes of the mountain. The last fire that hot and extensive happened in 1977, a blaze that chewed up 6,000 acres, but its aftereffects weren't studied much, Bartosh said.
To find good data on Mount Diablo's postfire flowers, scientists have to hark back to the 25,000-acre wildfire of 1931, the biggest in the mountain's history. Mary Bowerman, the late botanist who co-founded the environmental group Save Mount Diablo, extensively documented that conflagration and its effects on plant life.
For scientists, this study is the proverbial candy-store moment. Naturalists will be examining not just how flowers and trees bounce back, but how wild animals and insects react. They'll be picking over the data for years.
Already, they've noticed that ants are treating the fire flowers like an exotic new string of restaurants, swarming them for nibbles.
"This is an amazing opportunity," Bartosh said. "It's really getting into the heart of the mountain."
Bartosh's team, funded by a $5,000 state grant, will be closely tracking vegetation for at least two years. What they collect - and they have state permission to take whatever flowers they need - will be stored at the Jepson Herbaria at UC Berkeley, a plant library whose specimens date to John Muir's findings in the Sierra Nevada in the 1800s.
Golden eardrops are one of the rare flowers that are blooming on Mount Diablo in the wake of last year's devastating fire. (Photo: Lacy Atkins, SFC)
Open showcase -
Also studying the postfire mountain are three teams funded by $1,000 grants from Save Mount Diablo, where Bartosh is chairman of the science program.
Most of the burned area is chaparral, which consists of drought-resistant plants that usually grow so densely together the ground is obscured. The flames licked the surface virtually flat in many places, creating an open showcase spot for flowers usually hidden under brush - such as the rare Mount Diablo jewel flower and the Fremont's death camas lily, now sprouting in bigger, more visible numbers than have been seen in generations.
Celia Zavatsky, 73, of Berkeley drove up Summit Road the other day to check out the latest blossoms. An amateur botanist, she's been bloom-hunting on the mountain ever since the first few fire followers' petals began poking up through the blaze-blasted earth last month.
"This is so thrilling for those of us who love native plants," she said excitedly, preparing to head up a slope to check out some whispering bells. "Some of us are seeing plants we've never seen before in our lives, and may never see again.
"For anybody who loves nature, this is a special, special time."