Sunday, March 15, 2009

Riverbed Resurrection

Orange County's "Freeway Complex Fire" used the express lane as it roared from east to west last November through the kindling-dry bed of the Santa Ana River. Starting along a freeway in Corona, in Riverside county, the fire jumped the river as if it weren't there and raged through Yorba Linda and beyond, burning hot enough to make granite crumble. Fed by Dollar and and Dry lakes 70 miles away, high in the San Gorgonio Wilderness in San Bernardino county, the river doesn't have much to offer in the way of deterrent effect by the time it gets to Yorba Linda, thanks to the demands of thirsty local water agencies along the way. It's so hemmed in by concrete that most of us suburbanites don't quite notice there's a major river in the neighborhood.

And yet four month later, as nearly 200 families grapple with the consequences of losing their homes, the Santa Ana River basin is coming alive again. This afternoon, Kathy and I parked in a neighborhood along La Palma Avenue and walked east, in the opposite direction as the fire. Wildflowers, vines, and ferns embrace and envelop desiccated trees and cactus, sometimes rooting in the charred branches themselves. The basin is home to several acres of orange groves, one of the few places left in Orange County where you can smell orange blossoms in March. A few of the trees were destroyed, but not many. Either the fire maneuvered around them, or firefighters maneuvered the fire.

With all the winter rain and snow in the mountains this year, the river was running strong, a lure for five teenagers we saw carrying a canoe across the railroad tracks that run along the north side of the riverbed. Kathy said that she wondered how the kids' parents felt about them crossing the busy tracks. I wondered what they thought about the kids riding in a canoe in the Santa Ana River.

We were soon distracted by child's play of our own. The trains run past the Green River golf course, where the big hitters on the northernmost holes litter the tracks with Titleist, Top Flight, Maxfli, Nike, and Callaway balls, plus one with the logo of ULCA women's softball. We collected 15 in all. We don't play golf, and we didn't have any way to carry them back, but how do you find 15 golf balls and not keep them? Finally, because we're sober, middle-aged people, we left them behind, except, of course, two -- one shimmering white Nike and the UCLA ball. We carried them back through the mud and wildflowers and burnt trees, amazed by nature's regenerative, Resurrection power.

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