Reserve Steward Paul Havemann took the first-ever step onto a freshly carved stone staircase at the Stebbins Cold Canyon Natural Reserve on Friday and broke out in a satisfied smile.
“This is so good,” he said, bounding up the steps and toward the next stretch of trail. “Good on the knees. A nice, hard step.”
The steps, chiseled from the sandstone by volunteers earlier that morning, will lead hikers to a newly made-over and expanded reserve – one that people who visited frequently before the Wragg Fire of 2015 may hardly recognize when the area reopens Sunday.
The 638-acre Stebbins Reserve, part of the University of California Natural Reserve System and operated by UC Davis, is a jackpot for both wildlife researchers and hikers in search of soaring Lake Berryessa views. When the Wragg Fire tore through Stebbins and 7,500 acres of surrounding terrain in July, the reserve’s staff closed the area to the public to assess the damage and rebuild.
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The ecological effects of the blaze are evident. Charred scrub oaks, Toyon shrubs and Yerba Santa trees line the popular 5-mile Blue Ridge Loop trail, their blackened boughs a sharp contrast to the bright-green grasses that sprouted from the barren soil in the recent rains. A lone manzanita, fondly referred to by reserve staff as the “teaching manzanita” for its proximity to the footpath and popularity with students, is showing no signs of regrowth. High on the ridgeline, the California blue oaks that once peppered the upper slopes are few and far between.
The picture may seem dismal, but the fire is a blessing in disguise, said reserve director Jeffrey Clary, pointing out a white morning glory that has been growing particularly well in the post-fire landscape. Like several other California “fire followers,” it has been climbing on the skeletons of dead trees as if they were trellises, making the flowers more abundant and visible than ever.
The singed tree trunks are an important part of the reserve’s new ecosystem, Clary said. The trunks decompose in the soil, which attracts more bugs and consequently more birds. Without trees blocking the sun or drinking up water, the reserve’s native ground plants such as California elderberry and soap bulbs can grow especially tall.
“What’s nice about the fire in this setting, even though it was a very destructive fire, is that because it’s taking place in a site that we have people out studying and learning from already, we get to see what happens,” he said. “Climate change in California is here now, and this is our chance to see what those very specific effects are. The opportunity of a catastrophe is not wasted in this case.”
Beyond the ecological perks, the fire has also given reserve staff members a chance to make long-overdue structural changes at Stebbins Cold Canyon, Havemann said. He and a group of volunteers worked tirelessly to build a new quarter-mile of trail from a new parking area to the original start of the Blue Ridge Loop.
Public use of the park has skyrocketed in recent years from roughly 10,000 people annually to roughly 65,000, “to the point where it was overcrowded,” Clary said. The hope is that, new steps as well as new parking options and other updated trail features will better accommodate the crowds.
The parking lot was moved to the same side of Highway 128 as the trail and an adjacent overflow lot was added. Before the fire, visitors had to cross the highway to get to the start of the trail from the lot.
“We didn’t have the trail and parking infrastructure in place at the time,” he said. “The fire is giving us a chance to deal with that and change the culture here to one of respect. … It’s a ‘make lemonade’ situation.”
New signs will encourage visitors to keep strictly to the trails, as post-fire landscapes can be unstable. Also part of the change is an official ban on dogs in the reserve.
Eric Barnett, a Napa resident and trail builder with the local nonprofit Tuleyome, was on site Friday helping to put the finishing touches on the Cold Canyon trail. He, like many others in the Winters area, was excited to see the reserve opening up again after such a long closure.
“People want to get their trail back,” he said. “When a disaster like this happens, what are we gonna do? If you love a trail and want to help, you do what needs to be done, and that’s what I do.”