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Mission College crew helps restore burned canyon


Bishop and horticulturist Tony Charness discuss replanting of the canyon.

It’s not easy to restore Mother Nature, especially after a devastating wildfire has done its worst. But each day, a handful of men give it their best shot.

Make that a handful of men, and their very determined Mission College supervisor.

Kathleen Bishop is LAMC’s director of public safety. She is also administrator of a two-year $378,000 grant awarded to Mission College by the U.S. Department of Labor. The National Emergency Grant is designed to help communities recover from wildfires.

Last year, when it seemed all of Southern California was ablaze, the Val Verde fire threatened homes in Stevenson Ranch. Although those homes were spared, the flames devastated neighboring wild areas, including Pico Canyon, a popular recreational area.

"Everybody went to Pico Canyon for picnics and campouts," said Bishop, a longtime resident of the Santa Clarita area. "It’s a part of our history and of our family memories. We just had to restore it."

The fire left the rustic canyon nearly unrecognizable to its longtime visitors. Blackened trees, denuded hillsides and a lack of plant life and vegetation dominated the landscape following the October 2003 blaze.

That began to change earlier this year when Bishop assembled a team that included Tony Charness, a habitat restorationist with the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, contractor Malloy Solberg, and 15 unemployed men referred by the Pacoima WorkSource office.

"The grant has two purposes," said Bishop. "One is to help restore the fire area and the other is to provide jobs for the unemployed."

Crew members earn a little more than $13 an hour and work about 20 hours per week. Their task to date has been to pull all the fuel grass in the canyon, chop down blackened trees, clean out accumulated silt, and help preserve whatever plants survived the blaze.

"It’s a beautiful thing for us to come out here and restore this canyon," said Timothy Wilkerson, a groundskeeper who has been with the project since August. "It was pretty burned out when we started and now everything is turning green."


Groundskeeper Vik Mardirosian stands knee deep in hole where new tree is planted.

After pulling more than 11-hundred cubic yards of debris from the canyon, the crew is entering an exciting new stage: the actual revitalization of the canyon. Hundreds of new trees are being planted, including species that were destroyed in the fire and new species that Charness plans to introduce. Plants are also going into the ground, many of them donated by individuals and merchants who have heard of the project. Jeff Stevenson, member of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy Board of Directors, donated seedling for 500 plants and trees.

"It’s going to take years for the canyon to get back to where it was before the fire," said Charness. "But in the interim, it can still be great. We wouldn’t have been able to do what we’ve done so far without these folks from Mission College."

Besides the restoration that has taken place to date, the project has yielded some pleasant surprises. In one case, the crew came upon an unfamiliar plant which can best be described as resembling "fog" on the ground. Charness is still trying to identify it.

In another case, the crew discovered two large stone markers, hidden in grass and debris, which appeared at first to be gravestones. After cleaning the stones and reading the inscriptions, the crew learned that the stones were landmarks designating the site as historical. In 1876, the first commercially successful oil well in the western U.S. gushed "black gold" from a derrick constructed by Charles Alexander Mentry. The markers indicated the site of the "Pico Number 4" derrick. (The discovery drew hundreds of oil workers to the area and led to the founding of Mentryville, which stands today as an historic town and serves as the crew’s "base camp.")

Despite the unexpected finds, it’s all about restoring the canyon. And everyone involved feels they’re doing something worthwhile, perhaps no one more so than Bishop.

"In my eyes, the canyon looks more beautiful than it’s ever been," she said.

See More Photos from the Pico Canyon Restoration

– BY EDUARDO PARDO / Photos: Lydia Chung