Rebuilding Sonoma County: Revival underway at fire-ravaged Pepperwood Preserve
From a hilltop in the Mayacamas Mountains, the view is spectacular.
Massive Mount St. Helena looms to the east; the Santa Rosa Plain stretches for miles to the west, and the surrounding gentle hills are cloaked in tall grass mostly turned summer gold, waving in an afternoon breeze.
Green tree canopies seem to cover the more distant forests.
To a casual observer, the sprawling 3,200-acre Pepperwood Preserve, a place dedicated to conservation science and education, looks a lot like it did a year ago before the worst wildfires in California history ignited in October.
But a solitary black oak tree atop the hill attests to the impact of the wind-driven Tubbs fire that roared east from Calistoga over nearly the entire preserve en route to inflicting terror and loss of life in Santa Rosa.
“This one didn't make it,” said Ben Benson, the preserve's cultural resources coordinator, pausing to touch the gnarled black oak he considered an old friend. “Feels like a tombstone to me.”
Fire scorched 90 percent of the preserve, blackening grass, brush and trees and destroying two houses, two outbuildings and an observatory with a 19th-century brass telescope. The $9 million Dwight Center withstood the fierce flames, as it was built to do, but it took about two months to get preserve staff back at work inside the concrete walls.
Still, Lisa Micheli, president of the Pepperwood Foundation, doesn't consider the landscape damaged.
“Fire is an agent of rebirth and recovery,” she said, calling it a “critical part of the landscape.”
As soon as the preserve's woodlands were deemed safe to enter, staffers and other scientists began assessing the fire's immediate impact and devising long-term studies to inform future firefighting strategies and forest management practices.
“We didn't change our mission,” she said. “We changed our task list.”
Michael Gillogly, the preserve manager who has lived on the property for 24 years, said Pepperwood enjoyed a bumper crop of wildflowers this spring - yellow, white, blue and violet - and grasses that are now up to 6 feet high, taller than usual.
The abundance was nurtured by a “burst of nitrogen” from the ash of incinerated plants, he said.
Manzanita seeds, stored below ground, need fire to germinate. Knobcone pine trees readily burn, but the cones need heat to open and release seeds, he said.
“The plants have evolved with fire,” Gillogly said. “Ecologically, it wasn't a bad thing at all.”
Greg de Nevers, a former resident biologist at Pepperwood for 15 years, surveyed the property in April and May and identified 43 native plants he deemed “fire followers” for their propensity to spring from soil-stored seeds in the wake of fires, including four that had never been recorded on the property.
One of those, an annual herb with a small red to pink flower called Brewer's redmaids, was found in several spots, including a nearly solid 500-square-foot hilltop patch.
In his report, de Nevers said he felt “incredibly privileged to be able to witness the wonders of the natural world as the land and its inhabitants are transformed by this event.”
“Feeling the resurgence of life from the ashes inspires confidence in the resilience of the biosphere,” he said.
Benson, who is monitoring the preserve's black oaks, found mixed impacts from the fire.
“I see some that are so hideously burned that it's like a graveyard,” he said. All that's left of some black oaks is white ash on the ground, while 30 feet away another tree remains standing.
In a black oak grove near the top of Pepperwood's Redwood Canyon, Benson pointed out the blackened trunk of a slender tree, with a small branch bearing green leaves 20 feet above ground.
“It's amazing,” he said.
Black oaks are among the most fire-resistant of oaks thanks to their thick bark and deep taproot. One of nine oak species at Pepperwood, black oaks were prized by the Wappo, the people who inhabited the land going back 8,000 years, Benson said, based on dating of obsidian tools he's found there.
Overall, the black oak survival rate is higher than 50 percent, he said.
The depths of Redwood Canyon are a surreal area, Benson said, with the charred-black spikes of redwoods and huge firs towering to the sky mixed with felled trees that crashed onto the canyon walls or formed bridges across it.
“Yet high in the canopy, above the graveyard, some redwoods have green growth,” he said. “There is renewal there.”
Everyone at Pepperwood knew the place - home to 750 varieties of native plants and 150 wildlife species, including black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, foxes and blacktail deer - was in harm's way.