Wind and drought-stressed trees a perilous North Coast combination amid string of punishing storms
A downpour like the North Coast experienced over the past two weeks, after years of drought, can be too much of a good thing for the region’s famed trees.
And that can mean peril for people and property, especially when the winds kick up.
Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman witnessed the danger firsthand this week.
On Wednesday, Baxman led a crew of firefighters up Highway 1 to clear a downed tree. It was blocking access to the coast highway from a subdivision east of Russian Gulch, and an ominous storm, the latest in a series of atmospheric rivers, was bearing down on Sonoma County.
About 5 p.m., sustained wind gusts of 30 to 40 mph made their mission impossible to complete.
“Stuff started flying around,” said Baxman, who has worked through countless storms during his 53-year tenure with the Monte Rio Fire Protection District. “We had to back off and get out of there.”
After the storm let up Thursday, Baxman recalled drenching rainstorms in the 1980s and 1990s when the Russian River area occasionally recorded nearly 100 inches of rain.
“The only thing that’s unprecedented is the wind,” he said.
Gusting up to 88 mph in the Sonoma Coast mountains, the mega storm toppled untold thousands of trees across the North Bay and left 17,000 PG&E customers — concentrated in west county — without power.
Tragically, a 2-year-old boy was killed when a redwood tree crashed into his family's mobile home on Joy Road near Occidental.
It was the fourth atmospheric river of the rain season that began Oct. 1, with two in both December and January totaling 9.66 inches and two more expected starting Saturday, according to Sonoma Water, the region’s main drinking water provider.
Atmospheric rivers, thin plumes of water vapor born in the tropics, provide nearly half of California’s precipitation and come with a Jekyll and Hyde capacity for dousing droughts and triggering floods.
As of Friday, the heavy rains had done neither here — yet — but they spelled doom for many towering redwood and Douglas fir trees.
Baxman offered a simple explanation. Parched by more than three years of drought, the trees “fill with water and they topple over,” he said.
Firs come uprooted; redwoods “just break,” he said. Wind applies the killing force.
But heat and record-dry conditions have been key underlying factors in California’s unprecedented tree die-off over the past decade. An estimated 9.5 million trees in the state succumbed to bugs, disease and dehydration in 2021 alone, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Since 2010, the statewide toll, compiled in aerial forest surveys, exceeds 172 million trees.
At Pepperwood Preserve, a partially forested 3,200-acre tract in the Mayacamas Mountains, scientists tracked the latest storm and were eager to see what it left in its wake.
A weather station on the property overlooking the Santa Rosa Plain recorded a maximum gust of 45 mph at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday.
“You don’t see too many of those,” said Ryan Ferrell, a research scientist at the facility dedicated to ecological study and education.
Scorched by wildfires and strained by historic drought, Pepperwood’s forests are vulnerable, said Devyn Friedfel, the assistant preserve manager.
Drought prompts a tree’s root system — the structure that stabilizes the tree and absorbs water and nutrients — to recede, weakened or dying in some cases, he said.
And changes in the soil itself from fire and drought can make surviving trees even more vulnerable. Many can fall victim to winds in summer and fall, when the soil is dried out and cracks, Friedfel said.
Then add copious amounts of winter rain, as in the past two weeks.
Rain-saturated soil becomes “kind of soupy,” Friedfel said, further destabilizing trees.
Across the North Coast, the storm has claimed many of the region’s two most famous species: coast redwoods, which have a shallow system of interlocking roots that hold up multiple trees, and Douglas firs, which have a deep tap root that allows them to sway in the wind — to a certain point.
Falling trees are “part of the natural cycle,” Friedfel said.
Tosha Comendant, Pepperwood’s conservation science director, said Thursday the storm’s impact hadn’t been fully assessed because the preserve’s old ranch roads have been closed, as usual, for the winter.
On Friday, she and other staffers, on foot and in all-terrain vehicles and bearing chainsaws, planned to survey more of the hilly preserve located northeast of Santa Rosa.
Acknowledging the damage done by the four atmospheric rivers, Comendant also noted a study last year that said the western United States and northern Mexico are experiencing their driest period in at least 1,200 years.
The drawback to a storm series like the current one, she said, is that such copious rain in concentrated periods can’t be captured in saturated soil, despite how thirsty trees and plants might be.
The latest storm dealt Dona and Denny Asti a second blow from nature about 8 p.m. Wednesday at their rental home on Codding Drive in Santa Rosa.
“We heard a bleak crack and a thud and then our power went out,” Dona said. “We thought it was a transformer (failing).”
A neighbor came by to point out the 100-foot fir tree that had fallen across their driveway and blocked the street.
“It kind of brought back a feeling of loss,” she said, although none of their property was damaged.
Nearly all their possessions were incinerated in the 2020 Glass Fire that destroyed their home of 43 years high up Los Alamos Road. Looters made off with everything they could salvage from the ashes.
This week, after one night in the dark, cold Codding Drive home, the couple, married for 57 years, decamped to a Santa Rosa motel, where they remained Friday night.
Undaunted by misfortune, the Astis are rebuilding on Los Alamos Road.
Guy Kovner is a retired Press Democrat reporter. Reach him at email@example.com.
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