San Dieguito River Park (SDRP) has transformed and evolved tremendously over the past almost 12 years since the devastating Witch Creek Fire engulfed the San Pasqual Valley, Lake Hodges, and Santa Fe Valley trail systems. The fire burned 247,800 acres and devastated wildlife habitat. At the start of 2008, all the trails in the burn area were closed and trail users were asked to stay out. The surviving wildlife was already stressed and any remaining vegetative cover and food was critically needed for their continued existence, and this became an important consideration for the management of the trails and surrounding open spaces moving forward.
Staff and local experts busily implemented an action plan titled “Post-fire Assessment of Emergency Actions Needed for Recreational Access and Habitat Restoration.” SDRP staff, along with Craig Adams from the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy and Jerri Stalcup from Conservation Biology Institute, developed the plan in order to protect remaining habitat, create new habitat, protect natural fire recovery processes, and reopen the beloved trails. SDRP rangers focused on keeping the off-trail areas from being disturbed to allow for a natural recovery process to unfold.
An important area of emphasis in the recovery was aiding the development of habitat for our local bird species, especially California gnatcatchers and coastal cactus wren. The action plan stated the following:
“The conserved lands around Lake Hodges and in San Pasqual Valley have been core population strongholds for gnatcatchers and cactus wrens in San Diego County, supporting 235 pairs of gnatcatchers and 90 pairs of wrens in the 1990s.
Thus, the fate of the River Park’s populations will have regionwide implications for the MSCP and MHCP, and possibly the Southern California NCCP program as a whole. In fact, we are facing the very real potential for local extirpation of populations of gnatcatchers and cactus wrens, 2 of the 3 focal species initially prioritized by the State of California’s Natural Community Conservation Program (NCCP) in Southern California.”
The cost of replacing the trail system was largely covered by FEMA and the Park was fortunate to be assigned to a gentleman from South Carolina who was referred to as FEMA Bob. His assistance in navigating the process cannot be understated. River Park staff was able to negotiate some upgrades so as to be better prepared for future fires, including a more fire proof design for the office, and metal incorporated into bridge and fence rebuilds.
After a casual encounter with Andre Macedo, a biologist from the City of San Diego, he helped the River Park get access to the San Pasqual Water Reclamation Plant which became the Park’s new temporary headquarters. The site was perfect and came with a protected storage area that housed hundreds of bales of rice straw that was shipped from Sacramento for erosion control. During the winter of 2008, erosion control became a primary duty of the park rangers since all the drain pipes were becoming overfilled and most slopes and drainages were unstable. Performing erosion control was critical to the reestablishment of native plants and holding the trails together. Below is a photo of the nursery at the temporary headquarters.
Another major resource and support to the rebuild was the Urban Corps of San Diego. Under the direction of Sam Lopez, they contributed multiple crews to help implement trail safety and stabilization projects and assisted with restoring habitat. In 2008, Urban Corps also pursued additional and substantial funding to help rebuild the Park and do habitat restoration work.
In the fire, SDRP lost mostly all of the tools and equipment (one truck was in the shop) and the main office and storage sheds. In 2008 there were new trucks, trailers, tractors, and a chipper purchased (same ones we use today), as well as hand tools, power tools, posts and fencing, seeds and plants, etc. There were FEMA accounts, grants, donations, insurance, and multiple other accounts all navigated to provide the funds needed to reacquire all the needed equipment and re-build the Park. Office Manager Jan Lines tracked it all and baked cookies for the staff and volunteers every Tuesday- she was incredible.
Before the fire, SDRP was constructing the Del Dios Gorge segment of Coast to Crest Trail, the David Kreitzer Lake Hodges Bicycle/Pedestrian Bridge, the Cloverdale Creek Wetland Creation Project, and our coastal operations were up and running. In addition to re-building the Park, we still had on-going projects to manage and implement in 2008, and the staff and volunteers were able to deliver. We experienced a huge outpouring of support from the community and received reassuring and encouraging emails daily. The San Diego Foundation, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and Natural Resources Conservation Service all committed to providing substantial funding for habitat restoration. It is incredible what can be accomplished with a plan, community support, and a well-organized, motivated staff!
I am very proud to have worked for the San Dieguito River Park during this time. One could assume that this was the busiest year in the Park’s history.
Jason Lopez, Resources and Trails Manager