“I had no idea what to expect,” Steven Hammerich says, as he scans through wildlife images on his computer at Pepperwood Preserve.
At the end of September and early October, the scene looks much like any other fall in Sonoma County. You see a lone bobcat on the prowl the night of Sept. 28. A deer wanders by on Oct. 2. A coyote stands alert on Oct. 7. And then, at 1:57 a.m. Oct. 8, as the Tubbs fire roared through Pepperwood on its way from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, the motion-activated field camera captures frame after frame filled with a sea of flames and red-hot tracers of flying embers. A Douglas fir ignites and the temperature shoots up to 133 degrees by 2:15 a.m.
By the end, more than 85 percent of Pepperwood’s 3,200 acres — home to 900 species of plants and animals — would burn, mostly at a low to moderate intensity. By the time Hammerich and the rest of the Pepperwood staff returned several weeks later, many field cameras had completely melted. But in other cameras the storage cards survived, allowing them to piece together a rare narrative of wildlife survival.
“It really is like detective work,” says Hammerich, Pepperwood’s resident camera tech, as he cues up footage from the same E5 camera that captured the previous images before and during the fire.
Two days after the fire, the first sign of wildlife appears: The blurry head of a buck at 3:22 in the afternoon. Two days after that, a jackrabbit bounds by at 12:44 a.m. On Oct. 15, a deer appears at daybreak. And like that, in photo after photo, a coyote, a squirrel, more deer and another jackrabbit return. Other cameras on the preserve capture mountain lions on Oct. 13 and 16, a black bear on Nov. 6 and Nov. 24 and a bobcat on Nov. 8.
It shows in clear detail that wildlife is starting to thrive again less than three months after the fires. Across a once-barren landscape, now greening over with new life, cameras and other climate sensors are feeding scientists and fire ecologists a trove of data to track how nature responds.
For many bystanders watching early news reports, the devastating rural fires conjured scenes from “Bambi,” with wildlife frantically fleeing the raging flames that spread quickly through the forest. “But we often don’t give the animals enough credit,” said Alex Hettena, a research associate with the Mountain Lion Project at the Bouverie Preserve, where roughly 75 percent of its 535 acres burned near Glen Ellen.
During the fires, she was able to track a 12-year-old mountain lion named “P1” (“P” for “puma concolor,” the scientific name for mountain lions) and her 8-month-old cub in real-time during the fires. Fortunately, they’d recently replaced P1’s broken GPS collar in September.
As the Nunns fire spread in Sonoma Valley, “like everyone else I was on the computer and watching TV 24/7,” she said. “And I was able to see exactly where the fire was growing as I downloaded the new Cal Fire maps every hour or so.” She could layer each new fire map over the tracking software she used to follow P1 by GPS.
“At one point, it appeared as if the fire was on top of her. But I knew the home she was near, because she’d had a previous cluster (a collection of GPS points) there last year and I thought it might be a wet area because it was near that home.”