Rush is on in Sonoma County to protect burned watersheds ahead of winter rains
After the devastating loss of his home of 52 years in the Glass fire, Bob Miyashiro was unaware that he would bear any responsibility for the ruin and runoff beyond his property line at the edge of forested Mark West Creek.
But in the sprawling burn zones of Sonoma County’s two large wildfires this year, the Glass and Walbridge, watershed watchdogs are trying to get that word out to landowners, stressing the risks for streams and wildlife of debris- and toxic-laden runoff from destructive fires.
Miyashiro, 84, got the heads-up from a friend, who told him of a neighborhood workshop Monday meant to help burn zone residents with the materials and know-how to protect local streams.
Sonoma Ecology Center representatives distributed coils of the absorbent straw wattles ubiquitous in burn zones and instructions about how to install them around home sites to filter out heavy metals and other toxins that can imperil waterways.
By late morning, Miyashiro, plus two friends and a pair of Pepperwood Preserve staffers had staked 150 feet of the straw rolls between the charred and melted remains of his Tarwater Road home.
Miyashiro, who coached the swim team at Santa Rosa Junior College for more than three decades, welcomed the help and praised the results.
“You see what happens?” he said. “Neighbors pitching in to help neighbors. That’s the nice thing about it.”
Combined, the 55,209-acre Walbridge fire in northwest Sonoma County and the 67,484-acre Glass fire on the eastern border, scorched massive chunks of the county’s main watershed, burning along Austin Creek, Mill Creek, Mark West Creek and Santa Rosa Creek, all of which feed the Russian River.
Now, as winter rains return, community groups are scrambling to marshal residents and volunteers to contain debris and soils on the blackened landscape.
Some of the most intensely burned areas are the most rugged — steep slopes cut with deep canyons and streams that shelter imperiled salmon and steelhead trout. The Russian River also carries water that is vital for people — with drinking water supplies for 600,000 North Bay consumers and thousands of agricultural users.
For Miyashiro, Mark West Creek was a close natural companion. His home stood so close to the creek’s high water mark he would toss Camellia blossoms from his 60 bushes into the current so he and his neighbors could watch them float downstream.
But the St. Helena Road corridor where his home stood was among the hardest hit areas of the Glass fire when it roared through at the end of September.
The standing trees on Miyashiro’s property are badly charred, along with the ground itself all the way down to the streambed, which runs about 30 yards from bare foundation of his home. Dozens of other properties in the area are in similar shape, surrounded by forest skeletons and steep, black slopes.
The mission here is critical, but challenging given the wide need for help: About 490 homes were destroyed in Sonoma County by the two fires, many of them in sparsely populated drainages.
Those residents, whether they know it or not, are responsible for ensuring the runoff from their burned properties doesn’t carry off debris, toxins and soil that can pollute streams.
But the work that goes into securing burned sites isn’t easy, and even hired contractors may not have sufficient expertise to do the job properly, experts say. Straw wattles, for instance, have to be nestled into the ground and staked down without any gaps to function properly. They also have to be placed cross-contour so they filter runoff. Too often, people align them so they instead collect and channel runoff.
“There’s a lot of science behind it, even though it’s just a simple straw sock,” John Kessel, the recovery and resiliency coordinator for Sonoma County. “It can make all the difference in the world.”
In addition, the dispersal of homeowners after a wildfire makes communication hard. Some may be unable to afford help. Others are physically unable to do the work themselves.
So, as with other recent wildfires, the county is sponsoring several community groups to team up with neighborhoods associations and landowners to ensure that high-risk areas receive attention.
Public resources remain limited, given competing demands after numerous North Bay catastrophes and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The county has budgeted $350,000 for supplies, technical guidance and crews across the two burn zones, contracting with the Russian Riverkeeper, the Community Soil Foundation and the Sonoma Ecology Center to do what they can, Kessel said.
They are building on lessons learned after the Tubbs and Nuns fires of 2017, when land stewards came together to mitigate what damage to watersheds they could, said Jason Mills, program manager for the Sonoma Ecology Center.
The first priority is removal of toxic substances, including paints, propane tanks, batteries and other materials that can leach pollutants. After debris removal — another laborious step — crews and landowners have their choice of materials for long-term erosion control: straw bales and wattles, seeding, water bars or coconut-shell blankets. Broadcasting wood chips from downed trees also has been shown to be one of the best solutions for limiting erosion while enabling regrowth.
“The sad thing about having multiple disasters is you really get good at it,” said Don McEnhill, executive director of the Russian Riverkeeper.
But time and resources are in short supply and that’s why organizers came up with the workshops held Monday and last Friday in a large field off St. Helena Road, where scores of wattles were given away “like hot cakes” to area residents for installation at their homes.
One of the recipients was Miyashiro, whose friend Richard Baril, a volunteer with the nonprofit LandPaths and Friends of Mark West Creek, was helping him with installation. Baril also lost his home in the Glass fire.
When he returned to the distribution site to pick up a few more wattles, he was able to get enlist helpers Sonja Barringer and Devyn Friedfel, from Pepperwood Preserve. Along with Miyashiro’s friend, Deborah Haarstad, they made quick work of the remaining work and went on their way.
“It’s an opportunity for us to come out and help our neighbor, who is in need,” Friedfel said.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or email@example.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.