Charred Sonoma County landscape tells of October fires’ complex toll
The scorched ridges rising above Sonoma Valley still look from the air like the October wildfires were recent, the flames' path over the Mayacamas Mountains visible in dark shadows of bare earth and burned trees.
Past the wing of a plane at 2,500 feet, beyond the decimated neighborhoods of Coffey Park and Fountaingrove, Hood Mountain stands like a battle- scarred sentinel, one of several well-known peaks that serve as silent memorials to blazes that burned hottest on steep, rugged terrain.
Eight months after wind-whipped flames spread and converged across 137 squares miles of Sonoma County beginning Oct. 8, the human toll is indisputable.
Twenty-four lives were lost here in the firestorm. Nearly 5,300 homes were destroyed.
Whole neighborhoods were leveled and dispersed, the diaspora still largely unmeasured though three seasons that have passed since the fires.
But the landscape tells a nuanced story of stark contrasts - ecological setbacks, losses and risks unleashed by the fires, as well as gains for nature and an ongoing rejuvenation in the wake of the disaster.
Much of that complicated picture takes shape from the small window of a Cessna as it banks over Warm Springs and a hilltop stripped clean of buildings and plant life alike. Vineyards and valley streams unfold below.
In the upper elevations - Hood Mountain and Sugarloaf Ridge to the east and Trione-Annadel State Park to the west - and on ridge after ridge across the Mayacamas, are gray, blighted zones of black twigs and charred forests, ground burned too hot to support any new plant life.
Swaths of this terrain burned so hot that it altered soil chemistry and structure, making it less absorbent during rains. The average rainy season that passed amounted to a forgiving first test. Such areas remain subject to destructive flooding and debris flows, particularly in the second and third year after the fires, experts say.
Still, survival and regrowth is evident through much of the fire zone, in charred oak woodlands and chaparral sprouting abundant new life. Dazzling spring wildflowers lured hikers to open spaces for months. Burned coast live oak trees sprouted new canopies and the torched branches of chaparral - madrone, manzanita, chamise and toyon - sent forth bright wreaths of green.
Most ecologists, though almost hesitant to say it given the human and material toll of the fires, said the fires were in many ways good for a landscape adapted to fire over millennia. The flames cleared old, dead forest undergrowth and small, unhealthy trees, allowing the survivors to grow stronger and boosting plant diversity.
Lynn Garric has witnessed the transformation on the 40-acre parcel she has called home for 34 years, nestled alongside upper Mark West Creek off Alpine Road.
When the Tubbs fire raced through her 40-acre property, it destroyed her home and the cottage where a close friend lived, razed the bridge that linked her to civilization, and blackened every growing thing in sight.
And yet this spring, green grass blanketed her homesite beneath a forested hill. Daffodils came up by the hundreds. Blossoms adorned the scorched fruit trees that weren't killed. Oaks and bay trees around the place have grown leafy new canopies.
“This was all black in October,” Garric, 69, marveled last week as she gestured around her land, now an oasis surrounded by woods and forest still struggling to survive. “All the leaves fell off these trees.”
“The human element of these fires was devastating,” said Monica Delmartini, a stewardship planner for the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and former fire ecologist with the National Park Service. “But from an ecological standpoint, we're seeing a lot of positive effects.”
Safeguarding burn zone
In the immediate aftermath of the fires, the most urgent environmental concern was containment of toxic ash and debris from thousands of burned homes throughout the burn zone, but particularly those near creeks and drainages.
Chemicals, heavy metals, household toxins, electronics. Each burned structure contained an unknown mix of stuff that was incinerated in the flames and left exposed to the elements as the rainy season neared.
The paths the fires took put at risk key watersheds that provide both water sources and endangered species habitat. Most already are impaired by excessive sediment and other factors.
About 8 percent of the land area in the Russian River watershed was burned, exposing at least 617 streams to contamination, according to the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Flames moved in some places right into the Sonoma Creek and Mark West Creek corridors, as well as their tributaries, incinerating vegetation on the banks and leaving blackened trees above.