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Destruction and renewal: a photographic journey

A photographer chronicles the Angeles Forest's recovery from fire.

September 23, 2013|By Laura Tate
  • Plummer's Mariposa Lily (Calochortus plummerea)taken June 2012, from an exhibition of Michael Caley's photographs, "From the Station Fire Ashes: A Forest Recovers," at Penelope's Cafe Books & Gallery in La Cañada Flintridge.
Plummer's Mariposa Lily (Calochortus plummerea)taken… (Photo by Michael…)

The scorched landscape, burned bare of any signs of life, stretched over 250 square miles. Nothing but charred land dotted with remnants of burnt trees could be seen. The devastated terrain was the result of the Station fire, Los Angeles County's largest-ever wild conflagration, which raged through the Angeles National Forest in August of 2009. Two firefighters were killed, scores of homes were destroyed, and all plant and animal life seemingly was eradicated by the fire's fury.

But as La Cañada Flintridge resident and avid bicyclist Michael Caley discovered, nature is resilient.

Caley, a local architect, nature lover and photographer, has been biking throughout the mountains of the Angeles National Forest for years. His favorite ride is up Earl Canyon Road and west to Mt. Lukens, along a ridge to the Los Angeles City's highest point at 5,074 feet. The spring after the Station fire, Caley was granted special permission to enter the burned forest as a U.S. Forest Service volunteer. He did what he normally did the years before the fire stripped the land of its greenery and animal life: He took pictures. He continued shooting pictures during the following four years and was amazed by the changes he saw — new life springing from the ashes.

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“Mountainsides reduced to pure ash and a few burnt branches, trees destroyed … a year later were completely covered with gold poppies, bush lupine; those lupine gone now, replaced with golden yarrow,” Caley described in a recent telephone interview, “I've seen fox, mountain lions, plenty of deer, bear.”

The resilience of nature and the adaptation of its residents continued to astound Caley as he took his weekly rides throughout the seasons.

“Before the fire, I never saw more than a handful of poppies. Afterward, I saw entire hillsides of [them].”

Seeing Caley's photographs of the forest's slow recovery, friends and family urged him to show his work. From his weekly 18-mile round-trip bike rides was born an exhibit, “From the Station Fire Ashes: A Forest Recovers,” now on display at Penelope's Cafe Books & Gallery in La Cañada Flintridge through Oct. 30.

Caley has been taking photographs longer than he's pursued his career as an architect. He bought his first camera right out of high school 40 years ago. With a camera, he said, he “looked at the built environment while looking at nature at the same time.”

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