Burned trees in North Coast fire areas pose dilemma for homeowners

While homeowners worry about trees falling in winter storms, ecologists say many will survive and say let them stand until spring.|

Danny and Sky Matula have tied bright green ribbons near the base of about 50 charred Douglas fir trees standing behind the ruins of their home in the rolling hills west of Kenwood.

“They’re just toast,” Sky Matula said, as light rain fell on the ashen remains of the home his father built on the wooded 10-acre parcel adjoining Trione-Annadel State Park.

The black, denuded firs - including two that stand about 150 feet tall - are almost certainly dead, and stand far too close for comfort to the once and future family home.

The green ribbons mark them for removal by one means or another.

But like countless other homeowners, the Matulas are stuck in an uncomfortable dilemma regarding the fate of fire-scarred trees, including stout oaks and tall, slender firs, that impart majesty to their property.

Like California’s iconic redwoods, oaks are cloaked in thick, protective bark that enables several of their species to survive all but the worst wildfires, experts say.

And as homeowners begin to plot their post-fire recovery, tree advocates are urging restraint in removing burned trees and shrubs in favor of waiting at least until spring to see if fresh green growth emerges from vegetation that has adapted to survive fire.

The Sonoma Ecology Center, a nonprofit dedicated to research and restoration, is especially promoting forbearance for oaks, which it says “make up the backbone of Sonoma Valley’s forests and woodlands.”

“There are people all over the place with a chainsaw just cutting everything they see,” said Caitlin Cornwall, the center’s research program manager.

Unless a fire-damaged tree poses a threat to people or property, it merits a second chance at life, she said, noting that spring is just a few months away and green sprouts are already emerging from the ground.

On its website, the center advises landowners to “consult with an arborist if you think a large tree poses a danger and must be removed. Otherwise leave them be.”

Steven Swain, an environmental horticultural advisor with the UC Cooperative Extension for Sonoma and Marin counties, said he supports the center’s position.

“Oaks survive fires even when they look terrible, with the leaves all burned off,” he said.

When dead oaks are felled, shoots will typically emerge from the stump or roots and can eventually grow into mature trees, according to a UC Agriculture and Natural Resources bulletin. Pruning back to one or two dominant shoots will enhance their growth.

But not all species are so fire-resistant, Swain said, noting that most conifers - pines, firs, junipers and spruces - will perish if their leaves are burned brown or black.

Dead pines and firs are a particular concern because their roots will decay and the trees will likely topple, he said.

Redwoods resembling blackened poles, like some he has seen in Fountaingrove, can sprout from the roots even if the upper tree has died, Swain said.

Another consideration for leaving large trees in place is their root systems help hold sloping ground in place, protecting against landslides, he said.

Dead trees will provide habitat for cavity-nesting birds like bluebirds and owls, acorn storage for woodpeckers and wood-eating insects that nourish birds, center spokesman Don Francis said in a statement.

The Matula property includes chaparral on a slope leading up to the park, where shrubs like manzanita, toyon, chamise and other species depend on fire for rejuvenation, resprouting from their root crowns even after intense fires, Francis said.

The Nuns fire, which leveled 639 homes, roared up from Kenwood on Oct. 8 and destroyed a small cottage and the 4,400-square-foot family home, every bit of it built by Danny Matula, now a retired school teacher, starting in 1976.

Danny, who fled from the fire with a few possessions including a treasured family portrait photo, returned about a week later to survey the devastation.

“I just burst into tears,” he said.

His father’s “labor of love,” with redwood siding, large windows and passive solar features, cannot be replicated, but the family will rebuild, said Sky Matula, a Cotati resident who runs a family-owned chain of hot tub stores.

The fate of charred firs a safe distance from the house is uncertain; logging contractors are telling the family they all should go, eliminating a strip of forest that provides privacy for the home site.

Oaks near the house and pool, even those burned to black, leafless skeletons, will remain in hopes they survive.

“It’s a real dilemma for us,” said Sierra Matula of San Francisco, Sky’s sister.

“We love our trees, we watched them grow tall and strong for decades. This is home with a capital H.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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