How Sonoma County is changing the conversation about fire
On the way to meet environmental educator Katja Svendsen and the dozen or so folks on her guided hike at Sonoma Valley Regional Park hike I asked a woman on the trail if she could direct me to the burn area. She turned her palms up, shrugged her shoulders, and looked up at the branches all around as if to say, “You’re soaking in it.”
“I’m pretty sure this whole park burned,” she said.
Then it registered: there was blackened bark on almost all of the oaks on the ridge whether they were deciduous species just sprouting new leaves, or the ones that had been leafless since they were torched by the Nuns Fire in October 2017.
The theme of Svendsen’s nature walk on this bright March day was Wildfire Recovery and Rebirth. Svendsen is cognizant of the fact that, because so many people lost so much in the fires, wildfire is a very sensitive topic. “This is pretty much focused on nature,” she said, acknowledging that this is just one aspect of what people who lived through it and lost family, homes, schools and neighborhoods regard as recovery. “We just want to see how the land is recovering — what nature is doing.”
Svendsen has been helping people connect with the outdoor world for almost 20 years — the last nine at the Environmental Discovery Center headquartered at Spring Lake. On this day she wanted to share what was happening in the park, and learn about changes in the Sonoma County ecosystem as a whole — “good, bad or indifferent.” She also wanted to bring participants up to date with the current conversation about the role fire is playing in California and the West.
In the years since devastating fires first began to sweep through California, many land managers have pointed out — always carefully — that fire can be a good thing in the natural world. Still, Svendsen’s walk was a bit of a revelation. With fire science, as in all science and all things, it’s the specifics that yield understanding.
Kids and parents
There were a couple of fifth-graders in the group, Cub Scouts who, along with their parents, were notching another hike in their belts for the Redwood Regional Challenge — an annual “no child left indoors” campaign. This is typical, and Svendsen knows how to keep kids un-bored.
Clearly a born teacher, she had in her backpack a short stack of home-made laminated informational cards with photos, bullet-points and illustrations. Before hitting the Cougar Trail, she showed her hikers a striking image of a knobcone pine’s burnt-black cone, which had blossomed open, following a fire, to release its seeds. She explained that these trees, like many others, are serotinous—they require fire to repopulate.
Following a short, steep climb, Svendsen displayed a classic-looking science-book illustration showing “Fire’s Role in Nature,” explaining something that has been much in the news of late: Without periodic fire, forests are in danger of becoming overgrown with brush, resulting in catastrophic fire.
“Renewing, recycling, and replenishing,” she said. “That’s the relationship the land has with fire.” We all had probably heard this before, but shin-deep in brand-new emerald green grasses, with puffy cumulous clouds blowing through a blue sky above, it sank in deeper.
Further down the trail Svendsen showed photos of a couple of rare local wildflowers that bloom only after a fire but had not yet arrived in the park— whispering bells and the aptly named fire poppy. These so-called “fire followers” require a lot of sun, so once the park’s undergrowth returns, in two or three years, they will disappear.