Progression

In the very early morning of Sunday, August 16th, a dry lightning storm started a bunch of fires all over the western slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Five of those fires would become significant and eventually merge to form the CZU August Lightning Complex.

(There was a sixth nearby fire that you might be able to see as a small dot northeast of the complex perimeter, to the left of the “me” label. That fire was our initial worry because it was less than a mile from our house. However, before we were evacuated we were watching it closely and it didn’t seem to be growing. Turns out it wasn’t.)

From this progression map (in which I highlighted the first three days of fire growth) you can see that the southern-most fire, which was staffed well because of its proximity to residential areas, was completely contained and didn’t grow after that first day. The other southern fire over on the coast did grow some on the second day but it was apparently also well staffed. The three fires up north were woefully understaffed in these early days and burned pretty much unhindered.

On the third day, the fire absolutely exploded in size growing to over 40,000 acres and connecting four of the original fires into a giant “complex”. (We were evacuated late that afternoon.)

The fire would continue to grow over the next 34 days but it’s pretty wild to think that about half of the total burned area happened in the first 3 days of the fire.

(Thank you, Casey Dunn, for the maps.)

Fire progression map for the CZU Lightning Complex

Containment

The CZU Lightning Complex fire is now 100% contained at 86,509 acres (~135 square miles.)

Containment doesn’t mean the fire is out or even fully under control. It simply means they’ve established a control line around the entirety of the fire such that it should not spread any further.

At the height of the fight, there were almost 2,500 personnel working the fire. That number is down to 81 today. I think that does say something about the control they have over the fire though and I’m relieved to finally hear containment has hit 100%.

Fire Season

Summer is over, but fire season is not. Historically, according to CAL FIRE, fall is when we see the largest and most destructive wildfires. I’ve got my fingers crossed hoping we’ve seen the worst of it for this year. The rains can’t come soon enough.

Not A Nettle

Continuing our exploration of the coast redwood understory, also known as “our yard”, we have the California hedge-nettle (Stachys bullata).

This fairly common perennial herb is native and endemic to California, growing along the coast from about Mendocino in the north (though it really starts to flourish around the San Francisco area) all the way down through San Diego.

The California hedge-nettle is a member of the mint family and likes to grow in moist, shaded areas at lower elevations. It reaches about 3 feet tall and has large sandpapery leaves in opposite pairs up the stem. The pink flowers cluster up the stem in groups of six, blooming for about half the year from April to September.

It’s said that the leaves have medicinal properties and a poultice made from them speeds wound healing, and a tea can help with upset stomach.

Don’t be fooled by the name. The California hedge-nettle doesn’t grow in hedges and it’s not even a nettle. We do have stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) in the redwood forest, and they do look a bit alike, so be careful what you touch.

[Photo credits: me, joshuadavis5 from iNaturalist, and Deanna L. Pierce]

California hedge nettle stalk and flowers

California hedge-nettle leaves

Close-up of California hedge-nettle flowers

Valley Oak

This photo is of a single limb on a big valley oak. Valley oaks get real big. I think they’re North America’s biggest oak. I took this photo at the foot of the hills on the east side of the range. We don’t see valley oaks on the west side of the Santa Cruz Mountains so they’re one of the tree species I look forward to seeing on my commute into Silicon Valley (during non-pandemic times.)

valley oak branch against a blue sky

Banana

Next up in my series of posts covering the flora and fauna of the coast redwood understory is a mollusk! You heard that right, a mollusk. It’s the famed banana slug, in our case, the California banana slug or Ariolimax californicus.

The California banana slug, native to the redwood forests of the San Francisco Peninsula, is one of eight or nine species of banana slug that have a range from southern California up to northern British Colombia.

These colorful decomposers are a critical player in their ecosystem, breaking down leaves, other dead plant material, mushrooms, moss, animal droppings and more into rich soil humus.

Banana slugs can grow up to 10 inches long, making them the second largest slug in the world. They have two sets of tentacles, the ones up top for seeing and two down below for feeling and smelling. They have a big hole on their right side called a pneumostome that moves air in and out of their one lung.

They can live up to 3 years (not the 7 years claimed in various places on the internet.) One of the most fascinating aspects of these creatures is that they’re simultaneously hermaphroditic. They can impregnate themselves! or, more commonly, any other banana slug.

They’re all around outside, and even occasionally inside, during the wetter months but move underground and near streams during the dry summers. They can burrow up to 9 feet down into the ground where they estivate, which is kind of like hibernating.

The Calfornia banana slug is an imperiled organism (at high risk of extinction or collapse due to restricted range, few populations or occurrences, steep declines, severe threats, or other factors) and only survives in parts of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. The slender banana slug, found in the Santa Cruz area is also imperiled.

[Photo credits: Paweł Pieluszyński (via iNaturalist) and me]

close up on a banana slug

close up on bright yellow banana slug

two bright yellow banana slugs crawling on rocks

Views From the Mountain

I live on the west side of the Santa Cruz Mountains and work on the east side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. (The range forms a ridge, with an elevation around 2300 feet, that runs down the middle of the San Francisco Peninsula.)

In times before the pandemic, I commuted to work several days a week up and over the mountain to Silicon Valley. Often I would time my return trip so that as I crested the ridge and came down the coast side I could watch the sun setting on the Pacific Ocean. There’s a small gravel pull-out a couple of miles down the western slope where I could pull over to enjoy the the view and take pictures.

One of those pictures is my current cover photo. I’m sharing a few more pictures taken from that same spot at different times of day and different times of the year.

On the right side of these photos is Mindego Hill. Mindego is a map maker’s corruption of “Mendicoa”. An immigrant from the Basque region named Juan Mendicoa owned that hill in the late 19th century. The hill’s peak is about 2100 feet in elevation.

Beyond that hill is the town of La Honda. La Honda is a small town (village?) of about 500 homes that was settled in the 1860s. It’s also home to our post office and volunteer fire department.

On the left side of the photos, behind the Douglas firs that stick up above everything else (and that Doug fir snag) is Butano Ridge. The ridge rises up about 2000 feet.

Past Butano Rige, that farthest and lowest piece of land visible in the photos, is the town of Pescadero, down on the flats near the coast. Pescadero is a small farming town, about half the size of La Honda, but unlike La Honda, it’s got a gas station :-)

Our home sits about half way between the photos’ vantage point and Butano’s ridge line on the left edge of the photos. We’re situated down quite low (under 500 feet elevation) on Peters Creek, which feeds into Pescadero Creek that wraps around the end of Butano Ridge and empties into the Pacific just past the town of Pescadero.

I really enjoy this view and hope you do too.

Photo of the western side of the Santa Cruz Mountains down to the Pacific Ocean.

Photo of the western side of the Santa Cruz Mountains down to the Pacific Ocean.

Photo of the western side of the Santa Cruz Mountains down to the Pacific Ocean.

Photo of the western side of the Santa Cruz Mountains down to the Pacific Ocean.

Photo of the western side of the Santa Cruz Mountains down to the Pacific Ocean.

Dwarf Rose

And here’s yet another post on the flora of the coast redwood understory (our yard.) This time we look at the dwarf rose, or wood rose, or baldhip rose — botanical name Rosa gymnocarpa.

This low deciduous native shrub grows all over the Pacific Coast Ranges from California up to B.C and to the east in Montana and Idaho. They grow 2 to 6 feet tall and have slender reddish stems covered in small bristly spines. Their leaves are ovular and toothed and their flowers, which show up in May and June, have 5 pink to lavender petals.

We have a couple of these plants, on opposite sides of our driveway. One is about 3 to 4 feet tall with several stems. The other is much smaller with a single stem.

This shade tolerant rose is the smallest rose in North America, hence the common name dwarf rose. It’s also known as the the baldhip rose because the leaf- like sepals that are usually attached to rose hips fall off the plant (July-ish) leaving a naked, pear shaped, fruit.

[Photo credits: me, Kevin Martin via iNaturalist, and Deanna L. Pierce]

close up of a dwarf rose flower with spiny stem in backgroun

dwarf rose bud just beginning to open up

dwarf rose with an insect on its petal

dwarf rose hip, a pear shaped fruit among rose leaves

Santa Cruz Mountains

This is a view from part way down the west side of the mountain. It’s facing south-southeast.

Far off in the distance, where the mountain ridges coming in from opposite sides of the photo appear to meet (just left of center) is the city of Santa Cruz (and just beyond that I think you can just barely see the hills above Monterrey.)

We live behind the closer small ridgeline on the right side of the photo.

Photograph showing a valley through the Santa Cruz Mountains