Green stalks of redwood lilies grow beneath the giant trees at Pepperwood Preserve, but no one has seen the colorful, trumpet-shaped blossoms in decades.
They likely haven’t bloomed since 1964, when powerful winds pushed the Hanly fire from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, following much the same path of the deadly Tubbs fire three weeks ago. Both blazes scorched a broad swath across the 3,200-acre preserve in the Mayacamas Mountains northeast of Santa Rosa.
Redwood lilies are a fire-dependent species that require wildfire heat to reproduce, said Michael Gillogly, the preserve manager, who lived on the property for 23 years. His was one of two homes on the preserve destroyed by the conflagration that wiped out nearly 7,000 Sonoma County dwellings.
“I can’t wait to see them,” he said.
The redwood lilies fit well in Pepperwood’s rugged landscape, evolved over thousands of years not only to survive but to thrive in the Mediterranean climate of the Coast Range, where oak, fir and redwood forests, shrubs and grasslands are baked dry every summer, vulnerable to natural or human ignition.
“There is beauty in the Pepperwood landscape now,” said Lisa Micheli, president of the foundation that operates the facility located off Porter Creek Road. “It is in a renewal process.”
The property, which includes the headwaters of three creeks that flow into the Russian River, is home to 750 varieties of native plants and 150 species of wildlife, including birds, reptiles and mammals.
The fire also wrought a significant new direction for Pepperwood’s role as a scientific research facility, “perfectly positioned,” she said, to document wildland fire recovery and possibly to develop new strategies for forest management and firefighting.
“Even save lives,” Micheli said.
There is little green to be seen on the hillside around Pepperwood’s headquarters, the concrete-walled Dwight Center built to withstand fire and now dubbed “The Bunker” because it came through the Tubbs fire with only minor smoke and soot damage inside.
Bony black fingers of chaparral protrude from scorched bare earth, appearing toasted now but expected to soon sprout green shoots from their roots and begin regrowth. Dense thickets of chaparral provide safe nesting places for birds, cover for jackrabbits and birthing places for deer, Gillogly said.
Farther uphill, oak and Douglas fir trees stand with singed and drooping leaves and a less certain prognosis. The only way to tell if a mature tree is dead is to cut through the bark to the cambium layer, which transports water and nutrients up from the soil, he said.
If the layer is destroyed all the way around, the tree will probably die, but Pepperwood is not considering that appraisal.
“We’ll just wait and see what greens up in the spring,” Gillogly said.
Frankly, the preserve wouldn’t mind losing some firs, which invade oak woodlands and grow faster, eventually cutting off sunlight and dooming the oaks, Micheli said. Cutting out small fir trees has been one of the preserve’s forest management strategies, which has the added benefit of reducing fuel content for fires, she said.
In the absence of a thorough survey, Pepperwood officials assume much of the preserve’s 900 acres of grasslands were burned. But they know, based on the aftermath of controlled burns intended to eliminate invasive grasses and serve as fire breaks, that the meadows will fill again with green grass and wildflowers.