Charred Sonoma County landscape tells of October fires’ complex toll

From the small window of a Cessna plane, the fire zone in Sonoma County reveals stark contrasts - ecological setbacks, risks unleashed by the fires, as well as gains for nature and an ongoing rejuvenation in the disaster’s wake.|

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.

Government, nonprofit, and volunteer crews and landowners scrambled to deploy absorbent straw wattles and other erosion-control measures around burn sites, creek embankments, storm drains and draws to prevent burned materials and contaminated runoff from entering waterways.

It was a largely successful effort, given the scale and general chaos of the post-fire period.

“Lots of people pulled together,” said Mona Dougherty, senior water resource control engineer with the North Coast water board.

Virginia Mahacek, natural resources and watershed recovery coordinator for the Sonoma County Office of Recovery and Resilience, said the timing of the fires for coho salmon and steelhead trout limited their potential exposure to contaminants from ash and debris and averted what might have been a large die-off. The blazes came before their typical migration and spawning season.

“I don't think it's wrong to say that we kind of dodged a bullet in that regard,” Mahacek said.

Water sources spared

The way the rainy season unfolded helped, too.

It came in gently and then stalled for many weeks, providing enough moisture to germinate grasses and other plants and extra time to install erosion controls.

“We almost couldn't have gotten a better winter to follow the fire,” said Patrick Lei, a botanist and watershed assessment technician with the Sonoma County Water Agency.

Mandatory testing of the drinking water supplied to more than 600,000 residents of Sonoma County and northern Marin County through the Sonoma County Water Agency has been underway since the fires.

“We've had no water quality issues in the water we've been providing from the Russian River,” principal engineer Don Seymour said.

Limited monitoring at four creek sites before the rain started and after three subsequent storms detected minimal concentrations of some fire-related pollutants downstream of Santa Rosa's Coffey Park neighborhood, according to the regional water quality control board.

Metal concentrations also were noted in the Mark West Creek and Russian River watersheds - though within historic ranges, the water board said.

“We did see some increased hydrocarbon breakdown products, and we saw some increased metals,” Dougherty said. “Now we normally do see those increased when we have storm events because there's pollution sources in our watershed that produce those.”

Seymour said there are ongoing efforts to further analyze water samples, in part to try to understand how pollutants might be getting into the water in the first place and “what was happening to those contaminants as they were moving through the system and potentially impacting our facilities.”

“We're looking at some very small changes and also analyzing for things that a lot of people aren't looking at, in very small amounts,” Seymour said.

But widely shared fears of large-scale surface water contamination have been allayed. “Had our winter gone a little differently, it could have been a different story,” Lei said.

With homesites now cleared of fire debris, the threat of contamination is reduced, officials said.

Slide risks remain

But the risk of erosion remains, particularly around roads, culverts and other areas where people have disturbed the earth.

Where the heat of fire produced a kind of crust over the ground, preventing rainfall from infiltrating the soil, excessive runoff could raise stream levels during winter rains to new heights.

But as it develops holes and cracks over time, more rainfall will penetrate the ground, potentially leading to other hazards, like landslides or debris flows, which occurs when a lava-like flow of soil, mud, rock and water surges across the land with destructive and dangerous potential.

Such incidents are more common in Southern California, where the geology and terrain are different, experts say. Less is known about the risk factors in Northern California.

But scientists are using the North Bay fires to learn more.

Jonathan Perkins, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, is part of a team that also is monitoring soils in high-heat burn areas, in cooperation with the county's Water Agency and Open Space District, Pepperwood Preserve and State Parks.

He said the rapid vegetation growth, especially in the past two months, should help the soil recover, but the threat of sheeting and excessive runoff could persist for several more years.

“You can get the bulk of the recovery relatively quickly, but there's still a lasting effect,” he said.

In the meantime, agencies around the region already are working on updating plans for storm patrol efforts this coming winter. Like last year, they plan to have people on duty to monitor areas at risk of flooding, flash floods or debris flows.

The Water Agency has installed 22 permanent rain and stream flow gauges around the county in the wake of the fires to serve as an early warning system, providing real-time data on potential flooding to residents and the National Weather Service.

“It's not over yet,” said Valerie Minton Quinto, executive director of the Sonoma Resource Conservation District. “We could see erosion over the next couple of years. I've heard that pretty consistently.”

Outlook for parks

Some of the most ravaged terrain is in Sonoma County's regional and state parks, wilderness oases that will take some time to recover. They include Shiloh Ridge, Sonoma Valley, Hood Mountain regional parks, and Sugarloaf Ridge and Trione-Annadel state parks. Most of them saw the majority to all of their acreage burned over in October, though with varying intensity.

Volunteers have played a key role working with limited park staff to stabilize hillsides, rebuild trails and bridges and remove trees that could prove hazardous.

But their recovery in most cases will take decades, said Bert Whitaker, the county's regional parks director, citing the loss of the pygmy Sargent's cypress forest atop Hood Mountain.

Still, park managers have reopened all but small fragments of trail to the public, offering a landscape altered by the fires but largely recovering.

At Sugarloaf Ridge, “most of it seems to be coming back well, as it has evolved to do,” park manager John Roney said. “But we will see the effects for many years to come.”

Adapted to fire

Sonoma County's abundance of open spaces and preserves offer living laboratories to study the fire effects, and the Glen Oaks Ranch in Sonoma Valley is one of those scientific hot spots.

On a hillside overlooking the onsite historic stone mansion, a small stand of knobcone pine remains the color and texture of charcoal, the blackened trunks standing in stark relief against the blue June sky.

But knobcone seedlings dot the surrounding area, sprouted from pine cones opened in the heat of last year's fires.

It is just one of the plant adaptations visible on public and private lands in the fire zones, where flames passed through with varying intensity and duration, sometimes hopscotching, sometimes sweeping through in an all-consuming front.

Burned regularly for thousands of years by native communities who used fire as a land management tool, many plants here have developed adaptations that allow them so sprout new life directly from the roots or even the bark of badly burned trees.

They can only acquire the fuel they need to live through photosynthesis, so the plants use whatever energy they have stored to push out new foliage as quickly as possible to capture available sunlight.

Chaparral is among the first communities to begin its recovery, producing bright green foliage that rings the base of each bare and blackened tree.

Normally too dense to walk through, the fires have left the plants widely spaced, the sprouted vegetation growing up amid skeletons of the old trees it will replace. It may be a few years before the burned materials topple and decay, Delmartini said.

Burned coast redwood trees are slower to recover, she said, but no less resilient - layer upon layer of needled skirts growing out from their trunks in a bid for sunlight.

Live oak and other oak varieties that burned black and dropped their leaves have sprouted new foliage directly from their charred trunks, as well.

But much of the new growth on oak trees around the county has picked up a powdery mildew common in trees after fire, resulting, in the most severe cases, in light-colored, distorted leaves and alien-looking growths that come right from the tree's new twigs.

It should have no bearing on the trees' survival, said Greg Giusti, advisor emeritus for the UC Cooperative Extension's forests and wildlands ecology division.

Lei, who monitors watershed health for the county Water Agency, worked a stint with the U.S. Forest Service in the aftermath of the 2013 Rim fire in the Stanislaus National Forest. At nearly 260,000 acres, it remains the fourth-largest wildfire in California history.

“I worked in areas that you look out and you see 20 square miles of dust,” Lei said. “It was moonscape.”

In contrast, the Sonoma County fire pattens were patchier, leaving more moderate- and low-severity areas than those that burned with high intensity.

“Without sounding insensitive, it was a really healthy fires in some ways,” Lei said.

Uneven recovery

The outlook for Douglas fir forests in the fire zone may be the grimmest. They lack the fire-adapted resilience of other trees, and thousands have been killed, many of them on steep hillsides and ridges where they remain standing, surrounded by bare ground.

Dominant in some areas in part because of almost two centuries of fire suppression, the shade-tolerant firs were able to out-compete other species around them and eventually grow taller, shading out oaks and other hardwoods, Delmartini said.

So the fires were actually restoring balance in some of those areas.

But for people like Lois Weinstein and Dave Swarthout, whose Franz Valley Road home of 30 years was destroyed in the fire, the loss of hundreds of trees on their 40 acres was another blow. Most will have to be taken down.

“Sadly, I see signs of renewal in a lot of places, and I look around me, and I'm not really seeing it,” Weinstein said.

Sunlight through fire-thinned forests has allowed for a profusion of wildflowers and plants to bloom this spring, including some known as “fire followers,” last seen in the region more than five decades ago, in the wake of the 1964 Hanly fire.

The fire has also brought forth opportunistic, invasive weeds such as thistles and broom that could overtake native species in some areas. Some of the seeds likely were spread by heavy equipment and even workers' boots as fire recovery efforts were underway.

“We're seeing noxious weeds all over,” Lei said.

Delmartini said land stewards may be able to bring some aggressive weeds under control because the fires germinated their whole seed banks, so plants rid from the ground now can't regrow.

The same is true of nonnative Himalayan blackberries, which will recover after being burned unless they can be ripped out roots and all, Quinto said..

Striking a balance

Advisers are urging restraint in getting rid of burned trees too soon, however. Some that appear to have survived the flames could still die. Others that appeared not to make it could recover.

The same caution goes for safeguarding properties to reduce wildfire risk, said Caitlin Cornwall, a biologist and research program manager with the Sonoma Ecology Center.

“There's this window right now where these people are making really important decisions that could set their piece of ground onto a good path or a not good path for the next many years,” she said. “We're really concerned about a lot of people cutting down a lot of vegetation because it will make them feel safe.”

“The guidance on defensible space that comes straight from Cal Fire is actually quite sophisticated,” Cornwall said, “and yet people often interpret it as a very simplistic: ‘The more I cut, the safer I am.' There's a balance that needs to be struck.”

Delmartini said that people need to adjust to wooded places that may be “visually and emotionally jarring to look out” without taking immediate steps to eradicate it.

“I think from a human standpoint, areas like the Mark West watershed and those conifer forests that were really hit hard that first night, they're going to look different for a while, so that can be really challenging for people,” she said.

“But it's not necessarily challenging ecologically.”

Wildlife returning

Sonoma Land Trust Stewardship Director Bob Neale recalls the bleakness of the terrain when staff members were first permitted to return to the 234-acre Glen Oaks Ranch off Highway 12. “The other thing after the fires: There were no birds,” Neale said. “There were no animals. The silence was amazing.”

But week by week, one species after another came home, a story that replayed itself throughout the fire zone, as animals that remarkably survived the flames returned to their stomping grounds.

For the smallest animals, holes and burrows provided escape routes throughout the fire zones, while large tracts of unburned wildlands provided refuge for mountain lions, black bears, bobcats, coyotes and deer. Their return has been witnessed and documented on wildlife cameras deployed around the region.

At the 535-acre Bouverie Preserve across the creek from Glen Oaks, where flames swept through about three-quarters of the landscape, ecologist Jeanne Wirka, whose own home was destroyed, felt sure she had seen the last nesting pair of Canada geese, which have used the preserve bell tower for almost half a century to hatch offspring.

They returned in April, soon to welcome six goslings into the world.

“That was like my moment of, ‘Everything's going to be OK,'?” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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