“I had no idea what to expect,” Steven Hammerich says, as he scans through wildlife images on his computer at Pepperwood Preserve.
At the end of September and early October, the scene looks much like any other fall in Sonoma County. You see a lone bobcat on the prowl the night of Sept. 28. A deer wanders by on Oct. 2. A coyote stands alert on Oct. 7. And then, at 1:57 a.m. Oct. 8, as the Tubbs fire roared through Pepperwood on its way from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, the motion-activated field camera captures frame after frame filled with a sea of flames and red-hot tracers of flying embers. A Douglas fir ignites and the temperature shoots up to 133 degrees by 2:15 a.m.
By the end, more than 85 percent of Pepperwood’s 3,200 acres — home to 900 species of plants and animals — would burn, mostly at a low to moderate intensity. By the time Hammerich and the rest of the Pepperwood staff returned several weeks later, many field cameras had completely melted. But in other cameras the storage cards survived, allowing them to piece together a rare narrative of wildlife survival.
“It really is like detective work,” says Hammerich, Pepperwood’s resident camera tech, as he cues up footage from the same E5 camera that captured the previous images before and during the fire.
Two days after the fire, the first sign of wildlife appears: The blurry head of a buck at 3:22 in the afternoon. Two days after that, a jackrabbit bounds by at 12:44 a.m. On Oct. 15, a deer appears at daybreak. And like that, in photo after photo, a coyote, a squirrel, more deer and another jackrabbit return. Other cameras on the preserve capture mountain lions on Oct. 13 and 16, a black bear on Nov. 6 and Nov. 24 and a bobcat on Nov. 8.
It shows in clear detail that wildlife is starting to thrive again less than three months after the fires. Across a once-barren landscape, now greening over with new life, cameras and other climate sensors are feeding scientists and fire ecologists a trove of data to track how nature responds.
For many bystanders watching early news reports, the devastating rural fires conjured scenes from “Bambi,” with wildlife frantically fleeing the raging flames that spread quickly through the forest. “But we often don’t give the animals enough credit,” said Alex Hettena, a research associate with the Mountain Lion Project at the Bouverie Preserve, where roughly 75 percent of its 535 acres burned near Glen Ellen.
During the fires, she was able to track a 12-year-old mountain lion named “P1” (“P” for “puma concolor,” the scientific name for mountain lions) and her 8-month-old cub in real-time during the fires. Fortunately, they’d recently replaced P1’s broken GPS collar in September.
As the Nunns fire spread in Sonoma Valley, “like everyone else I was on the computer and watching TV 24/7,” she said. “And I was able to see exactly where the fire was growing as I downloaded the new Cal Fire maps every hour or so.” She could layer each new fire map over the tracking software she used to follow P1 by GPS.
“At one point, it appeared as if the fire was on top of her. But I knew the home she was near, because she’d had a previous cluster (a collection of GPS points) there last year and I thought it might be a wet area because it was near that home.”
Hettena recently visited the same area and found the charred remains of a deer carcass that P1 was likely feeding on during that stretch of the fire.
“I wasn’t really worried that she would be burning alive or running through flames,” she said. “I was more concerned with her kitten.”
So far, P1’s roughly 50-square-mile range on the west side of Highway 12, from Glen Ellen to Bennett Valley, doesn’t seem to have been drastically affected by the fires, said Hettena, who has been tracking P1 since October 2016. It helps that many deer have returned to feed on grass sprouting in burned areas. “But it’s too early to tell,” she said.
Many Mountain Lion Project cameras were lost in the fires, but thanks to a wave of donations, they were able to mount new field cameras just in time to record P1 and her kitten prowling around private property on Sonoma Mountain early the morning of Dec. 5.
“To actually see them again, not just in GPS clusters or a photo, but moving around in a video was very special,” Hettena said.
As more numbers come in, there seems to be a return to habitat both on the ground and in the air. Bouverie Preserve avian ecologist Scott Jennings looked at bird numbers later in October and noted that “in both wildfire and prescribed burn areas, we detected migrant and resident species typical of these habitats and in numbers that we would expect in these habitats during this time of year.”
His tally of more than 30 bird species ranged from wild turkey to acorn woodpeckers to red-shouldered hawks.
When light rain fell in early November, land steward and resource ecologist Jared Jacobs counted around 30 newts, mostly red-bellied newts, on two different occasions along the Canyon Trail in the Bouverie Preserve — a number that seemed in line with counts he’d done in past years.
“Wildlife is adapted to the fire landscape,” he said. “It was reassuring, but I wouldn’t say it was surprising to see wildlife returning so soon after the fires.”
Not long after sharing the treasure trove of surviving images on his computer, Hammerich and Pepperwood ecologist Michelle Halbur walked out to the E5 camera location, where the Douglas fir burst into flames that first night. Charred black, the same tree remains standing, skeletal against the dusk sky. A woodpecker pounds on another burned tree nearby. The once-thick low-lying chaparral is so barren that Halbur spots a jackrabbit bounding in the distance. Green sprouts pop against the black charred earth where a gopher — nature’s resilient rototiller — has worked up a mound of dirt, stirring once dormant seeds to sprout.
“It was very quiet,” Halbur says, remembering the day they returned to Pepperwood on Oct. 30. “It wasn’t the same place, yet it was the same place.”
For the team at Pepperwood, which is as much a learning center as a refuge for wildlife, the fire presents a rare chance to learn more about how nature responds.
“Scientifically, it’s an incredible opportunity, the fact that we manage a preserve that’s been burnt over,” said Pepperwood president and CEO Lisa Micheli. “I don’t know that there are that many cases where a field station that was specifically equipped to monitor the environment, was so extensively burned.”
As people rebound and rebuild and new data is collected from the grid of cameras and climate sensors, two different narratives evolve after the flames: First, there’s the very human emotional toll, the devastating loss of life and property. And then there’s the much more analytical, scientific model that shows how fire is part of a natural cycle that sparks a replenishing of the ecosystem.
Halbur is living both threads: “There is an initial visceral response when you see fire, especially when there are homes lost. It just gets to you. I lost my in-laws to the fire, so personally it’s a very tragic story,” said Halbur, referring to LeRoy and Donna Halbur of Santa Rosa, both 80, who died at their hillside home in Larkfield. “But professionally, I’m really excited. In that visceral response, we use words like “devastating” and “tragic.” But with nature, I’m not using words like “devastating” or “tragic,” especially being able to witness the regeneration, not just the vegetation, but the animals as they emerge from their shelters.”
From the ground up, voles are moving through the grasslands again. Plants like soaproot are sprouting. Dead trees nicknamed “snags” have become vital habitat, with woodpeckers and beetle larvae already moving in, and birds of prey perching on their bare branches to search for food below.
“To me, the only constant in nature is change,” Halbur says. “Fire is temporary; it’s a disturbance that comes through. Things regenerate and regrow. ... As soon as the hills started greening up, we could all kind of go ‘Ahhhh.’ It’s like, wait, was there a fire? And then you look at the heavily hit areas ... and you go, yeah, there was a fire.”