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Combining holiday tradition and the desire to reduce wildfire threat, more than two dozen families fanned out across a hilltop west of Healdsburg last weekend to cut down Douglas firs and haul them away for use as Christmas trees.

Aileen Santos of Santa Rosa felled two trees — one for herself and another for a friend whose Rincon Valley home burned down in the October 2017 Tubbs fire.

“It’s been a year, and they are just now pouring the foundation on her (new) home,” Santos said of her friend.

The Dec. 2 event, dubbed the Great Charlie Brown Christmas Tree Hunt, reflects a broader effort to reduce flammable materials in landscapes prone to wildfires. Forests have grown more tangled, in part due to fire suppression, raising the potential for more out-of-control conflagrations.

“The last 14 months have only emphasized how important fuel reduction work is in Sonoma County,” said Craig Anderson, executive director of LandPaths.

Sunday’s tree hunt was held at Riddell Preserve, a 400-acre oasis of oak woodlands, redwoods and open grasslands overlooking Dry Creek Valley. The Riddell family donated the property to LandPaths in 2007 after owning it for 40 years.

LandPaths staff have been using the preserve as a source of holiday trees for a number of years, according to Anderson. Last year, people who lost their homes in a wildfire were invited to participate. This year marked the first time the general public was allowed to take part, albeit on a limited basis and only through reservations.

Starting from a small parking lot, families made a 20-minute hike to a hilltop cabin, where they enjoyed hot apple cider and cookies before heading into the forest to hunt for a holiday tree.

Large stands of Douglas firs offered many options to choose from — and were also visual reminders of the fire danger existing within the preserve. According to Anderson, the smaller trees can become “fuel ladders” during wildfires by funneling flames into canopies of larger trees growing overhead.

According to a 2018 California climate report, fire suppression has helped increase the danger, along with the human-caused effects of climate change. Heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere and a rise in temperatures draw moisture from soil and vegetation, making for tinder-dry conditions in landscapes where just one spark can cost lives and billions of dollars in fire damages, as California knows all too well.

In response to the 2017 wildfires, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order to combat tree death, increase the ability of forests to capture carbon and improve forest management. The directive mandates education and outreach to landowners on the most effective ways of reducing vegetation and other forest-fire fuel sources on private lands, and streamlining permitting for landowners to improve forest health and reduce forest-fire fuels on their properties.

Such risks seemed remote on the clear and bright Sunday greeting participants in the Christmas tree hunt.

Under the watchful eyes of his family and a LandPaths volunteer, Aaron DeForest of Petaluma set the jagged edge of a saw against the trunk of a Douglas fir and sawed through the wood. His family secured the tree to the top of their Toyota Sienna and drove off, satisfied with their choice.

“We’re helping to prevent forest fires,” Melissa DeForest said. “Cutting down trees is a holiday tradition. We don’t care what it looks like.”

Riddell Preserve is accessible only by a private road and is not open to the public, except during supervised outings with LandPaths. Volunteers from the group have removed a significant amount of Douglas firs and other unwanted species from the property. But much work remains.

At Bohemia Ecological Preserve in Occidental, LandPaths staff and volunteers have created 30 acres of shaded fuel breaks by increasing spacing between trees. This opens the understory, slowing the spread of fire and giving room to slower-growing and more fire-resistant oaks and madrones.

Similar work is ongoing at the Grove of Old Trees in Occidental and on Fitch Mountain.

Anderson said it’s incumbent upon land stewards to do more.

“We all have these children we’ve been given to raise and take care of, and many of us, I would say, are not being the best parents,” he said.

“We have a lot of forest land in Sonoma County that is fire-prone, and we need to do a better job of it.”

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