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Why Sonoma County wildfire survivors believe oak trees saved their homes

New houses, framed and partitioned with plywood, are rising along Glen Ellen roads hit by the Nuns fire, which raced down Warm Springs Road and O'Donnell Lane and took out nearly every house in its path. It's taken longer than many expected, but the village is coming back.

Marjorie Everidge, 82, has four family properties in Glen Ellen. Her house was lost, like so many others. 'We walked up the driveway and everything we'd ever had or worked for had gone up in smoke,' she said.

She is living in a nearby rented guest house as the home she plans on reoccupying is being rebuilt. Two of the other homes are now inhabited and the remaining project is permitted and ready to go.

'We're really blessed,' she says now. 'We're alive, and things go on.'

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Slow progress in the valley

Of the 1,208 fire rebuild permits issued by Permit Sonoma, more than half — 679 — are in the 1st Supervisorial District centered in Sonoma Valley. Excluding Mark West Springs, Rincon Valley and Bennett Valley, 189 structures sit in Sonoma Valley, 106 in Glen Ellen, 70 in Kenwood and 13 are east of Sonoma.

Construction has been completed on 15 properties, including nine single-family dwellings, five secondary units and a bridge on O'Donnell Lane.

Like many others, Everidge is looking with trepidation at the approaching two-year mark of the fires, when insurance payments for cost-of-living expenses runs out for most survivors.

Arthur Dawson, a neighbor on Warm Springs Road and a local historian, has been living nearby in a mobile home with his wife Jill since the fires. They plan on asking their insurance agent for bridge coverage to take them to the end of the year.

'They started construction on May 2 — if you know the Gaelic calendar, that's Beltane, which honors fertility,' Dawson said.

That was a full year and a half after the inferno that destroyed the neighborhood, but Dawson was philosophical about the arduous journey, citing what he called fire survivor's advice: 'Don't be in a hurry.'

Dawson kept up with his work, documenting the fire history of Bouverie Preserve, which was extensively damaged by the 2017 fires.

'It's been kind of illuminating to see that it's a cycle, as opposed to a one-of-a-kind catastrophe,' he said. 'It's a 40- or 50-year cycle. It just kind of spins around over time.'

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The Last House still standing

Bouverie's fire damage in was notable, with nearly all of the 535-acre preserve swept by flames. Many structures, including the huge Gilman Hall education center, were burned to the ground.

A significant exception was The Last House, which David Bouverie had built for food writer M.F.K. Fisher in the early 1970s. Though flames burned ground reaching nearly to the foundation, the house itself never caught fire, its roof sheltered beneath a thick live oak canopy.

Jared Childress, a prescribed fire specialist with Audubon Canyon Ranch, which owns the preserve, is familiar with the story of The Last House. He described the tree overhanging the Bouverie landmark as having a 'very robust canopy,' which could help not only keep brush and grasses down, but provide shelter from embers.

'The number one reason you don't want overhanging branches isn't because the tree catches fire and it jumps to the roof,' said Childress. 'What happens is the house catches fire and it burns the tree.'

About a mile away, Tracy Salcedo's 110-year-old wood-frame house on London Ranch Road also was spared. Though it lay in the direct line of the fire's approach, it was sheltered by an expansive live oak.

The travel guide writer and environmentalist was awakened by a phone call early in the morning of Oct. 8 from a friend who told her that Dunbar Road was on fire.

'No it's not,' she told him, not being able to see fire from her window. Then she went outside and saw a wall of smoke approaching.

'You do not know what's happening,' said the friend.

Salcedo gathered her son Jesse, dog and two cats, loaded up the car and sped away. As flames laced across Chauvet Road, she was sure her house was gone.

But two days later it was still there, standing in a landscape of char and ash, in the shade of that big oak.

Salcedo is pretty sure the canopy protected the roof from flying embers, carried by the 60 mph wind that night.

'I have heard that these old oaks are not only fire resistant, but also protective,' she said. 'It makes sense, given the hopscotch pattern of burn in my neighborhood. There's really no logical reason that my home is standing, nor is there logical reason to take down the trees, since (they are) standing.'

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Nuance in fire-safety planning

Cal Fire's 'defensible space' recommendations for vegetation around structures include both 30- and 100-foot clearance zones, with more rigid requirements closer to a house. Two related bullet-points recommend:

Trimming trees regularly to keep branches a minimum of 10 feet from other trees.

Removing branches that hang over your roof and keeping dead branches 10 feet away from your chimney.

If the latter is followed to the letter, Salcedo would have to take down many of her shade trees, estimated by an arborist to cost $15,000. That she does not want to do.

'The trees are part of the reason we bought this place,' said Salcedo. She took care of them; she had just raked the day before the fires so her half-acre was relatively free of fuel. And though the fire came within five feet of her house, it didn't catch fire.

But Salcedo might have to take down those oak trees after all. Her insurance policy with Liberty Mutual was canceled; a Liberty account representative said they were no longer insuring in high-fire-risk areas. 'Nothing against the policyholder; it's just a business decision,' said Clifton Padgett of Liberty Mutual in Arizona. 'The underwriters can't assume the risk. It happens all the time.'

Would a company insure a house with overhanging branches?

'It depends on the company,' said insurance agent Chrisa Granton of Sonoma. 'They're all over the board. Some companies will give you some wriggle room, as long as they're 6 to 10 feet above the roofline. Others might want you to cut them down.'

Though it may seem counterintuitive to leave a tree overhanging a house for fire protection, it's not necessarily outlandish.

'Live oaks have for a long time been thought of as fire tolerant, both in their ability to re-sprout after burning, but also because they tend to keep the area around them cooler year round,' said Childress.

'Less sunlight reaches the forest floor, so there's less fuels like grasses and brush.'

Another factor: tree oil. 'Oaks don't have the oils that bay laurels, eucalyptus, and chamise have. Those can burn even if they're green because the leaves are oilier,' said Childress.

Last spring, six months after the fires, the Sonoma Ecology Center campaigned against removing trees even in the fire-scarred landscape. Program manager Caitlin Cromwell warned that taking 'defensible space' too far could cause more lasting harm to the environment than letting it recover on its own.

'The guidance on defensible space that comes straight from Cal Fire is actually quite sophisticated,' said Cornwall at the time, '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.'

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