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“He likes to be outside all the time,” said Juan Carlos Cervantes, right, about his son, Montgomery High School sophomore Khael Cervantes, 14. The two were part of a group of some 60 volunteers who planted redwood tree saplings in an area burned in last year’s Glass fire at LandPaths’ Rancho Mark West Preserve in Santa Rosa on Dec. 4. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Redwood renewal: 4,500 saplings planted to recover from Glass fire damage

Last year’s Glass fire took a heavy toll on the open space preserve of Rancho Mark West in the Mayacamas mountains. Now, a team of volunteers is aiming to restabilize the area with thousands of redwood saplings.

On a foggy Saturday morning earlier this month at Rancho Mark West, 14-year-old Leslie Barrera placed a redwood sapling into a steep hillside where a magnificent forest once thrived.

Dozens of other volunteers of all ages and backgrounds stepped gingerly around stumps and rocks dotting the open space preserve northeast of Santa Rosa to arrive at spots marked by little orange flags.

Their mission: to plant 4,500 redwood saplings to help offset environmental damage wrought by last year’s devastatingly destructive Glass fire and restore beauty and shade for future generations of visitors.

Estefany Abarc, left, and Carol Lopez hold a redwood tree sapling during a volunteer tree planting shift in an area burned in last year’s Glass fire at LandPaths’ Rancho Mark West Preserve in Santa Rosa. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)
Estefany Abarc, left, and Carol Lopez hold a redwood tree sapling during a volunteer tree planting shift in an area burned in last year’s Glass fire at LandPaths’ Rancho Mark West Preserve in Santa Rosa. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

“It’s amazing how one small plant can turn into a big thing,” Barrera, a Piner High School freshman, said as she packed dirt around the sapling.

Her mother, Margarita Garcia, stood nearby with a pickax in hand. The tool was a sharp departure from those Garcia normally uses to clean houses.

“We are so inspired to do this because we are so aware of climate changes,” she said in reference to the planting work, which is happening at a time of increasing threat of drought-induced megafires in the arid West.

Garcia belongs to the nonprofit LandPaths, which stewards the 120-acre Rancho Mark West property alongside original owners Jim and Betty Doerksen. The St. Helena Road site, about 20 minutes from downtown Santa Rosa, is a beloved community hub and outdoor classroom offering kids an immersive experience in nature.

Besides the aesthetic value of the tree plantings, the work carries significant environmental implications well beyond the boundaries of the sensitive watershed.

The property includes about a mile of Mark West Creek, which originates about 6 miles west of St. Helena in Napa County and meanders for miles before emptying into the Russian River near Steelhead Beach. The creek is one of only a few tributaries of the river that still supports a healthy population of steelhead trout, a threatened species in the watershed.

In the aftermath of the Glass fire and the loss of so many trees, there is now concern over sediment emptying into the creek as a result of hillside erosion.

LandPaths Youth Stewards, from left, Rodrigo Servin, 16, Carlos Cano, 15, and Cesar Gonzalez, 16, were part of a group of volunteers planting redwood tree saplings in an area burned in last year’s Glass fire at LandPaths’ Rancho Mark West Preserve in Santa Rosa on Dec. 4. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)
LandPaths Youth Stewards, from left, Rodrigo Servin, 16, Carlos Cano, 15, and Cesar Gonzalez, 16, were part of a group of volunteers planting redwood tree saplings in an area burned in last year’s Glass fire at LandPaths’ Rancho Mark West Preserve in Santa Rosa on Dec. 4. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

In September of last year, Jim Doerksen, 82, mounted a successful defense of the couple’s home and other structures on the property when flames from the Glass fire roared into what is widely known as Alpine Valley.

“It sounded like a 747 (airplane) landing,” Doerksen recalled of the fire’s awful roar.

Doerksen and his small crew were powerless, however, to stop flames from marching up the hillside and torching a wide swath of forest.

The retired engineer and real estate entrepreneur estimates he planted more than a million Douglas firs and redwoods on the property — so many that by the time he and Betty sold the development rights to the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District in 1993, the ranch was carpeted by a majestic forest of trees, many standing hundreds of feet tall. The couple also operated a popular Christmas tree farm.

Estefany Abarc, left, and Carol Lopez, both from Santa Rosa, were part of a group of about 60 volunteers planting redwood tree saplings in an area burned in last year’s Glass fire at LandPaths’ Rancho Mark West Preserve in Santa Rosa on Dec. 4, 2021.(Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)
Estefany Abarc, left, and Carol Lopez, both from Santa Rosa, were part of a group of about 60 volunteers planting redwood tree saplings in an area burned in last year’s Glass fire at LandPaths’ Rancho Mark West Preserve in Santa Rosa on Dec. 4, 2021.(Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)
Ezra Holguin, 7, of Sebastopol digs a hole to plant a redwood tree sapling in an area burned in last year’s Glass fire at LandPaths’ Rancho Mark West Preserve in Santa Rosa. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)
Ezra Holguin, 7, of Sebastopol digs a hole to plant a redwood tree sapling in an area burned in last year’s Glass fire at LandPaths’ Rancho Mark West Preserve in Santa Rosa. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Doerksen worked tirelessly over the years to reduce wildfire risk, limbing trees, reducing ladder fuels and building shaded fuel breaks. But that work was no match for the Glass fire, which Doerksen estimated burned more than a million board feet of wood.

He has spent the past year, and more than $175,000 out of his own pocket, on clearing burned trees and other restoration work. That amount includes $9,000 to purchase the 4,500 redwood saplings from Mendocino Redwood Company.

The couple are seeking to continue their legacy of stewarding the land for the public good. With no children of their own, they consider the kids who attend Owl Camp and other LandPaths programs to be members of their extended family.

The December tree plantings attracted volunteers from across the Bay Area, including families, white-collar workers, teachers, naturalists and a Marin County men’s group.

Craig Anderson, the longtime executive director of LandPaths, served homemade quesadillas, coffee and hot chocolate.

He called the replanting a “tonic of goodness” in a world struggling with the pandemic, drought, social and political reckoning and climate change.

“This replanting of burned forest is a microcosm of what it will take for us to rebuild from what ails humanity and planet both. It’s like nothing I have experienced in the past half-dozen years,” Anderson said.

“It’s just nice to get your hands in the earth and have this connection.” Adam Bulbulya

Construction worker Juan Cervantes, 47, worked alongside his 14-year-old son, Khael, a freshman at Montgomery High School.

“It’s rewarding because if you come back in a couple of years, you get to see all the trees grow back,” the teen said.

Adam Bulbulya, a Sebastopol resident who works with children who have developmental disabilities, remarked on the peaceful nature of the work, which he performed barefoot.

“It’s just nice to get your hands in the earth and have this connection,” he said.

Volunteers head out to an area burned in last year’s Glass fire to spend the morning planting redwood tree saplings at LandPaths’ Rancho Mark West Preserve in Santa Rosa on Dec. 4. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)
Volunteers head out to an area burned in last year’s Glass fire to spend the morning planting redwood tree saplings at LandPaths’ Rancho Mark West Preserve in Santa Rosa on Dec. 4. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Doerksen said he selected redwoods for the replanting because he believes the trees stand a better chance of surviving future conflagrations.

Eric Schoohs, the stewardship lead for LandPaths, selected shadier, north-facing locations for saplings to go in the ground. The total planting area encompassed roughly 12 acres.

“Redwoods love fire, so as long as we can give them a little push, make sure they’re well-spaced now, I think we’ll be having a forest here in 10, 20 years out. And within 50 years, it’s going to feel like it was always here.” Eric Schoohs

All 4,500 saplings were in the ground by Monday, just in time for forecasted rains. Volunteers will need to water the trees until they are more firmly established.

“Redwoods love fire, so as long as we can give them a little push, make sure they’re well-spaced now, I think we’ll be having a forest here in 10, 20 years out,” Schoohs said. “And within 50 years, it’s going to feel like it was always here.”

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