The most obvious signs of post-October firestorm wildland recovery in the Sonoma Valley are the carpets of grass now covering the char. But changes with a long history are taking place in the burnt-out Mayacmas range and on the scorched parklands sprawled across the valley floor.
Just what those changes will look like going forward, and the ecological processes they represent, drew 15 curious people to a December fire recovery walk on open space lands in the Sonoma Developmental Center, which abuts the Sonoma Valley Regional Park in Glen Ellen. The second in a series sponsored by the Sonoma Ecology Center, the guided walks explore the recovery of torched landscapes throughout Sonoma County and educate the public about how plant and animal communities have adapted over millennia to fire. They also foster conversations about what people can do to live in what was, and will continue to be, wildfire country.
The hope, as SEC research program manager Caitlin Cornwall explained, is to turn “fear into fascination and curiosity.”
While the disaster produced profound negative outcomes for people — terror; lost wages, jobs and businesses; homelessness; memories gone up in smoke — Cornwall likened Nuns and Tubbs fires to “a serious spa treatment” for the fire-adapted ecosystems of Sonoma County, one that hurt at first, but would ultimately prove refreshing.
Fire has been integral to the health and productivity of Sonoma’s oak woodlands for generations, said Cornwall. In the Sonoma Valley, early inhabitants set fires intentionally every three to five years; those low-intensity burns mowed the grasses and fed the soils, revitalizing bulbs such as soaproot, which was used for a variety of purposes. Fire also interrupted the life cycle of the acorn weevil, which meant the peoples’ staple food, acorns, were less likely to be compromised.
Chaparral, composed of chamise, ceanothus, manzanita and other shrubby plants, and common on west-facing slopes (think the Mayacmas facing Sonoma Valley), typically burned every 30 to 70 years, Cornwall said. Though a “voluble habitat,” the chaparral’s seeds of regeneration are hitched to fire. Cornwall noted that what ecologists have witnessed in terms of recovery after fires in Lake County may presage what will come to pass in Sonoma County, with the chaparral “exploding” with life come spring.
This onset of recovery was evident on the trail around the SDC’s Lake Suttonfield, where rosettes of green sprouted from the bases of burnt manzanita. In the oak canopy, new growth was budding much earlier than the typical springtime cycle. How that will play out once spring truly arrives is anyone’s guess. Even as the SEC experts, which included senior restoration ecologist Mark Newhouser, board member and landscape architect Ellie Insley, watershed science technician Melissa Roberts and educator Holland Gistelli imparted their expertise to walkers, they acknowledged they were learning as well, both about what happened during the burns and what would happen in their aftermath. Because fire has been suppressed for so long in these ecosystems, Cornwall explained, there’s a lot to watch, document and learn.
While the wildlands have had centuries to adapt to wildfire, the modern urban-wildland interface, where houses, roads, bridges and other human resources are located, has not. This presents a multifaceted conundrum that will take years to unravel, but the SEC and others are scurrying to mitigate certain aspects immediately. In anticipation of winter rains, for example, the center has instituted a program whereby volunteers install erosion control devices such as straw wattles to contain toxic runoff on incinerated properties, hoping to limit impacts on waterways. Heightened awareness of the possibility of landslides on steep slopes compromised by fire is also in play.
Then there’s the recovery regimen imposed by bureaucracy. Newhouser mused on the “institutional response” to large-scale, catastrophic fires by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and others. The impulse to mow down damaged oaks represents a bureaucratic overreaction to the October blazes, Newhouser said, given that many trees will recover. If an oak threatens people or property, it can be justifiably removed. But if a tree, even one doomed by fire damage, doesn’t pose a threat, the SEC recommends it be left in place. Dead trees are habitat: Cavity-nesting birds and other flora and fauna thrive there.
The use of planned, prescribed fires on private and public lands on a voluntary basis could also be considered as part of the picture going forward. Cornwall contemplated a system of land management in the urban-wildland interface as a “utility,” where creating defensible spaces would be as routine as making sure water and power are provided to households and businesses. It sounds scary and uncertain to a shell-shocked fire survivor, but such measures could have “outsize public benefit” in the long run, she said.
The SEC intends to host ongoing fire recovery educational walks at sites throughout Sonoma Valley. Currently, the free events are planned for Sunday, Jan. 21 and Saturday, Feb. 3, at the SDC in Glen Ellen. Additional hikes will be held Feb. 4, Feb. 18 and Feb. 25 at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Kenwood. To sign up for the hikes, visit sonomaecologycenter.org.
Tracy Salcedo is a writer living in Glen Ellen. You can reach her at laughingwaterink.com.