Ecological Reserve and Hiking Trails Blackened by Tenaja Fire

It may take years before the land and hiking trails near the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve to grow again.

As the Tenaja Fire raged in the hills above the city of Murrieta late Thursday, scorching thousands of acres, residents living in the neighborhoods nearby watched nervously as the flames continued to spread whichever way the wind blew.

"Absolutely crazy. We just live right back here in these neighborhoods and we've seen tons of fires. There was never anything this closem," Michele Crump said.

Despite erratic winds and fire behavior, firefighters in the air and on the ground have been able to save hundreds of homes.

Sadly, they couldn't save a big portion of the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve.

Flames have consumed part of the historic plateau's roughly 8,400 acres of land which is normally filled with wild animals and covered in miles of beautiful hiking trails.

"It's not just hiking trials. People take their horses up there, there's mountain biking. It's just awesome," resident Carol Cuffel said.

She and Monica Bumgarner have visited the plateau numerous times over the years.

"It's a great escape to get away from the hustle and bustle," Bumgarner said.

Much of the plateau was blackened, with trees and trails destroyed.

"Thinking of the big oak trees, and how they are probably gone, is really, really sad," Cuffel said.

Fortunately, firefighters were able to save the visitors center and other structures on the property.

But it may take years before the land is covered in green again.

Get the latest information on evacuations here.

"Knowing cycle of life, life will come back. What's burned will stimulate growth again," Bumgarner said.

So far, Southern California has been spared the large wildfires that devastated the state last year, when the largest, most destructive and deadliest fires on record burned in California. Above-average soil moisture, steady winter rains and high humidity are some of the reasons, along with onshore winds that help keep humidity in place.

Without dry brush that acts as fuel, fires can't spread as quickly.

As of Sept. 1, CalFire reported 3,700 wildfires that have burned 28,100 acres across the state since the start of the year. Last year at this time, more than 4,200 fires had burned an astonishing 622,600 acres. The five-year average for the period is 4,196 fires and 269,443 acres.

NBC4's Jonathan Lloyd contributed to this report. 

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