Mother Nature Restoring Fire-Ravaged San Bruno Mountain

Publisher: San Mateo County Times
Reporter: Christine Morente

Mother Nature Restoring Fire-Ravaged San Bruno Mountain

By Christine Morente

Posted on: Sunday, 7 September 2008, 21:00 CDT

BRISBANE -- At the base of many charred shrubs, new life emerges.

"They know exactly what to do," said David Schooley, referring to plants and Mother Nature's resilience after a five-alarm fire on San Bruno Mountain's Owl and Buckeye canyons in July.

Native plants on 300 acres were burned. Now, splotches of green can be seen on the mountain's ridge.

Schooley, founder of San Bruno Mountain Watch, is restoring the area.

He's concerned about parts of the canyons where the fire's heat was intense, which would have killed the seeds deep within the soil.

He goes up four to five times a week to plant huckleberry, sage, poison oak and fescue grass.

"We're going to plant fescue grass carefully," Schooley, of Brisbane, said. "Block after block, up and down the canyon. If the non-natives start popping around in an area that has been pure, we'll be working very, very hard."

"We have to keep an eye out," said Joe Cannon of Heart of the Mountain, a program headed by the Yerba Buena chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

The duo advocates for controlled burns because fire stimulates germination of different vegetation, and increases the amount of grassland.

Without it, endangered species such as the Mission Blue and Callippe Silverspot butterflies wouldn't have a home to breed. San Bruno Mountain is home to 22 rare and endangered species.

Walking up the canyon, Schooley pointed out a small lupine, the Mission Blue's host plant.

He said the last big fire in the Owl and Buckeye canyons before the one in July was about 75 years ago -- too long for the habitat to go without a fire.

In the meantime, grassland continues to decline.

According to the 2007 San Bruno Mountain Habitat Management Plan, there has been a loss of 670 acres of grassland habitat since 1932. Scrubs have become more prevalent because of the lack of fire.

"Scrub is not bad," Cannon said. "It adds to the diversity of the mountain. But it's really about the balance. We're losing grassland species. They're the ones becoming endangered."

Cannon said San Mateo County stopped having controlled burns on parts of San Bruno Mountain in the 1990s.

The technique requires semi-dry vegetation, air that is moist, and no wind.

"You want it to be just dry enough to control it," Cannon said. "A lot of people fear the fire, but at some point, the fire will come.

"The goal is to do a controlled burn before a catastrophic fire takes place," the San Francisco resident added.

While Cannon maintains that they continue to face the ecological challenge of not having fires, Schooley is happy that native plants are sprouting back up.

"They are beautiful to see," he said.

Staff writer Christine Morente covers faith, families, Burlingame and North County. She can be reached at (650) 348-4333 or

Originally published by Christine Morente, San Mateo County Times.

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