BOB RHEIN PILOTS AN ALL-ELECTRIC Toyota RAV4 up the precipitous one-lane blacktop that passes for a highway on Santa Catalina Island, dodging shuttle buses and Jeeps as he directs reporters’ attention to this southeastern flank of the island’s steep mountains. As he lifts a hand off the steering wheel to point out some feature in the blackened landscape, the vehicle drifts alarmingly toward the edge. Inches before the plunge, he jerks it back on the tarmac with an apology.

“I drive too fast,” admits Rhein, a spokesperson for the nonprofit Catalina Island Conservancy charged with the task of escorting media around the island. “I know it. I drive too fast. I’ll slow down.” As he veers back on the road and blithely reneges on the promise, I notice that the barricades that once stood between a driver like him and a thousand-foot drop have melted away; only a few charred and powerless stumps remain.

In other spring seasons, the steep hillsides here would have been ablaze with wild rose and poppy blossoms, dots of red and orange among the deep, dark green of the lemonade berry and Quercus tomentella, a rare species of shrubby oak found, like so many other species of plant and animal, only on the peculiar islands of the Santa Barbara Channel. But on the eerily hot spring day of May 10, a fire that started high in these mountains laid all that to waste.

Authorities say the fire ignited when technicians repairing towers at the local Christian radio station heated the end of a cable with a blowtorch and lost control of the hot cable in the wind. Despite an attempt by an announcer at the station to suppress the fire with an indoor extinguisher, it burned for four days and raced through nearly 4,800 acres, reducing this landscape — oaks, ironwood, wildflowers and all — to scraggly black stumps and ash.

A lawsuit is pending against the radio station, claiming that the conservancy hadn’t granted permission for the repair work. But in the meantime, the staff of the cash-starved island conservancy, which has relied for the last 35 years on a shifting supply of private donations and support from nonprofit foundations, has been scrambling to figure out how much it will cost to restore the burned areas, and where that money will come from.

Contrary to popular belief, says conservancy president Ann Muscat, the May fire did not benefit this particular ecosystem; of the 299 fires noted on the island record in the last century, only six were caused by natural events, and all six of those happened in the natural fire season that runs from September until the first winter rains.

“It’s a misnomer to say that chaparral is adapted to fire,” Muscat maintains. “This one occurred out of the normal fire season, and we’re very concerned about giving the natural habitat time to recover. And that’s going to be quite expensive.”

Although 86 percent of its land was deeded to the conservancy by the Wrigley family in 1975 — most of it preserved as publicly accessible open space in perpetuity — Catalina Island has been battered by human intervention since the mid-19th century, when ranchers and farmers began introducing nonnative grazers like goats, deer and, later, the island’s fabled bison. Invasive cheatgrass and brome, another grass, also crept across the island, having escaped Avalon’s decorative landscaping. Of particular concern is a plant called Genista,or Canary Island broom, which has begun crowding out native seedlings in the island’s interior.

The fire offers a rare opportunity — Muscat calls it “once in a lifetime” — to restore the fire-denuded areas without having to fight full-grown invasive grasses. But it has to be done with painstaking precision and care. Muscat says, “Fire activates the Genista seed bank” — millions of unwelcome seeds lying dormant in the soil.

Calculating the exact cost of recovery is one of the things the conservancy hasn’t had time or money to do. But when reminded of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s promise of $50 million to restore 800 burned acres of Griffith Park in Los Angeles, the genial biologist winces, and then, diplomatically, tries to smile.

“I’m not saying we’re not getting anything,” she says. “We’re meeting with [state senator Alan] Lowenthal’s office, and with [Los Angeles County Supervisor] Don Knabe, and they have ideas for us. And we’re writing a lot of grant applications. But we just don’t know anything yet.”

Knabe has been out to tour the burned areas, and has called for expedited permitting to repair structural damage. But so far, no funds.

IN THE PUBLIC-FUNDING GAME, the obvious argument for favoring Griffith Park over Catalina Island is that the 4,000-acre Griffith sits in the middle of a city, accessible to all of its citizens. Getting to Catalina, on the other hand, costs $60 for a ferry ticket from most Southern California ports.

But if accessibility were all that made a wilderness worth preserving, half the world’s nature preserves would be wiped out, and along with them roughly a third of this nation’s more rugged national parks. Catalina’s boosters argue that the island’s wilderness is worth restoring for its own sake — for the sheer wonder of observing an ecosystem teeming with plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth.

Carlos de la Rosa, the conservancy’s conservation and education officer, came from Costa Rica to study and help restore Catalina’s wilderness, where the local fox is not merely a fox but a Urocyon littoralis catalinae — a tiny Catalina Island fox — and the Catalina ironwood, with its fernlike leaves and clusters of small flowers, is the last surviving relic of a species that once flourished on the mainland. (The fox, decimated a few years back by a distemper epidemic, seems to have come through the fires just fine.)

Up in the mountains a few miles from the airport, at a place called Middle Ranch, de la Rosa explains how the land has come back from an earlier fire, one that burned a smaller area in 2003. Tiny shoots of green struggle out of an oak stump; lemonade berry shrubs push tenaciously out of the soil. Only white sage has burst back to life with gusto. “Here, take some,” de la Rosa offers, pinching a little between his fingers. It smells as strong as turpentine. “Can you imagine being a grazing animal and eating that? Bison will eat the young oak, but they won’t touch this.”

A fence has been constructed around one small piece of land, “an educational experiment,” says de la Rosa, to gauge what effect grazing animals have on the young shoots of native plants. Here, the oak has come back more fully, but along with it invasive fennel — a weed that smells like licorice and is used by chefs. On the scorched hillsides below, he says, the fennel will have to be manually weeded and replaced with seedlings of lemonade berry and Catalina ironwood raised in an island nursery.

“Everything we plant we have to grow here,” he says, “because everything is totally genetically unique to the island. It’s a long process.” Most of the labor will be done by mainland volunteers, who pay a small sum for room and board and a “working vacation.”

But like so much on tinder-dry Catalina, where more fires are expected during this long season of drought, even the volunteer program is in peril.

ONCE AGAIN CAREERING along the edge of the exposed mountain roads, Rhein suddenly slows down and pulls toward the edge.

“Here it is,” he says, “China Cliff. This is where Laura Stein went off the cliff.”

Stein, who died in 1993 when she lost control of her car at this spot where Rhein morbidly lingers, was the conservancy’s first coordinator of volunteer services. In 1994, a volunteer camp was built in her honor, complete with tent cabins and hammocks and a solar-powered kitchen overlooking the sea. Local chefs held wine tastings and served wild-salmon suppers for the worthy workers who came over from the mainland to help restore the island.

Now all that’s left of the camp are two mysteriously well-preserved tent cabins, piles of charred cookware and irregularly shaped blobs of metal — the remains of solar panels that melted in the heat of the May 10 blaze.

“It’s really sad,” Rhein complains. “This was such a beautiful spot, and now it’s gone. Just when we needed our volunteers more than ever, we have no place to put them up.”

LA Weekly