How Sonoma County is changing the conversation about fire

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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.

Stretches of the Recovery and Rebirth hike proceeded like any walk in the woods—kids running around exploring and grownups chatting in clusters. Down by the creek, scout Alex Ambrose poked around in a pool and returned with a treasure: a piece of glistening, black obsidian.

A little more than halfway through the hike, Svendsen gave her Smokey the Bear talk, which nowadays involves a bit of controversy. Smokey the Bear, of course, is the sworn enemy of forest fires. And the century-long suppression of forest fires helped give birth (along with climate change, but that’s another story) to a new kind of monster: the megafire.

Svendsen read from her card. “Fire suppression was created after the Big Burn of 1910. This fire charred an area in the Pacific Northwest roughly the size of Connecticut. It woke up a brand new Forest Service into snuffing out fire as quickly as they could. Ten years after the Big Burn, Smokey the Bear was put into force and the ‘10 o’clock rule’ came to be—any fire had to be put out by 10 a.m the day after it started. It took the Yellowstone Fire of 1988 for the Forest Service to reconsider the 10 o’clock rule.”

Suppress fire for 100 years, she says, and when fire inevitably returns, “you get this hot, hot fire — the destructive kind — not the good fire.”

Clearing the air

Hattie Brown, Regional Parks’ natural resource manager, believes that despite many agencies’ efforts to help people understand the role fire plays in the landscape, some confusion remains. The Nuns Fire’s impact at Sonoma Valley Park is an example.

“People hear the park was ‘100 percent involved’ by the fire. That’s true, but 100 percent burned really doesn’t mean 100 percent devastated,” she says. “In many cases, only two years in, it can be very hard to tell whether or not a particular area burned. You really kind of have to know what you’re looking for.” I learned that for myself when I returned to the park a couple weeks ago. The oaks on the Cougar Trail ridge had exploded in thick greenery. As promised, the wildflower show was awesome.

Brown points out that on the lands that she manages, the Nuns Fire was both a blessing and a curse. Just across the street from Sonoma Valley Park, on Shenandoah Ridge, the steep hillside was still obviously blackened in late April.

“The fire got into the canopy of the trees up there, and on Hood Mountain,” she says. “It was a killing fire.”

Brown has just been given a boost to help protect her parklands from such killing fires. Sonoma Regional Parks, in partnership with California State Parks, Sonoma Land Trust and Audubon Canyon Ranch, just received a $2 million grant from Cal Fire to do some forestry work on areas of high priority for community safety.

This comes at a time when the entire state of California is doing a fundamental reboot of its thinking about how to manage forests, obviously inspired by the catastrophic fires of the past several summers.

A $2 billion, five-year plan initiated by Gov. Jerry Brown and accelerated by Gov. Gavin Newsom has created a new entity called the Forest Management Task Force. One of the main tools of the task force is increased use of prescribed burns — which are designed to do precisely what the Nuns Fire did in Sonoma Valley Park.

At task force meetings, the practice is called “putting fire back on the ground.” And whenever it is discussed, someone will point out that a public education campaign is required in order for this practice to be accepted.

Education needed

Because it is likely we will see quite a few prescribed burns over the next several years in Sonoma County, Hattie Brown is careful to assure readers that they are safe.

She explains that in order to prescribe a fire, land managers must write a rigorous plan that requires the perfect conditions to prevent the fire from blowing up, and to ensure that smoke will not linger.

“Smoke from the Camp Fire hung over the entire Bay Area for a long, long time,” she recalls. “For all of us who live here, it felt awful. Those are the types of conditions under which a prescribed fire would never be allowed.”

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