At this point post-fire, the whispering bells have begun to fade. They’re an understated wildflower, clusters of nodding blooms now a papery ivory. But they are everywhere. Rounding a bend on the Lower Bald Mountain Trail in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, as oak woodland gives way to chaparral, the Sonoma Ecology Center’s Tony Passantino points out bunches of them.
But just wait, he advises.
And sure enough, farther along, an entire slope explodes with whispering bells. They are as dense as the bleaching wild oat grass in the meadow below, as dense as the coyote brush, chamise, and manzanita that burned here. There’s no wind on this late spring morning but if there were, the flowers would be softly chiming. Bend close and sniff: They smell like Sweet Tarts, of all things.
Passantino is delighted. He’s never seen anything like this, and neither has anyone else on Team Sugarloaf, the partnership that manages the state park. You can find whispering bells in an ordinary season, but this kind of profusion hasn’t been seen in 50 years, since the last time these hills burned. The same kind of rare display is happening down valley at the Bouverie Preserve in Glen Ellen, where the normally elusive redwood lily can be found everywhere, says Jeanne Wirka, director of stewardship for Audubon Canyon Ranch.
And the oat grass? Passantino, Wirka, and Neill Fogarty, supervising ranger at Trione-Annadel State Park have all watched it take off. October 2017’s wildfires supercharged the soils with “a megadose of nutrients,” Wirka explains, spawning a bumper crop that stands eight feet high in places. As the grasses cure and fire season progresses the potential fuel load is a little worrisome, but it’s also important to observe and document the abundance.
Most of us, fire gods willing, will only have one opportunity to witness the rebirth of nature following wildfire. And it’s happening in parks all around us. Here are some places where the effects can be easily observed with a short walk.
When the Nuns Fire swept through Bouverie, part of a hub of public open spaces and preserves converging in Glen Ellen, it almost immediately presented a lesson in fire ecology. Land managers had done a prescribed burn on a portion of the property, and the difference in how the fire behaved on that parcel presented an instant opportunity to study the effect of that fire management protocol in the field. The rest of the preserve took a hard hit, including loss of much of the infrastructure that supported its educational programs as well as man-made improvements along the trails themselves, like bridges. But by the time fall rolls around, Wirka said guided hikes for student groups and the public will be offered—and there’ll be more months of change to observe. Contact: 415-868-9244 ext. 306; www.egret.org/visit_bouverie
Hood Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve
Located along the high ground of the Mayacamas above Kenwood, about 60 percent of Hood Mountain’s 1,750 acres were torched by the Nuns Fire. Drier conditions and extreme winds intensified the firestorm in the southern reaches of the park, leaving hillsides of skeletal forest and charred earth in its wake. Recovery will be slower here, but still worth witnessing. To check it out, begin hiking at the Pythian Road entrance, climbing the Lower Johnson Ridge Trail to the Panorama Ranch Trail, then continuing on the Upper Johnson Ridge Trail to the summit. The total round-trip involves significant elevation change, so wear good shoes and carry plenty of water. The Sugar-Hood Shuttle is another option, accommodating a point-to-point hike from Hood Mountain to Sugarloaf; details are on the Sugarloaf website. Contact: 707-539-8092; www.parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov/Visit/Hood-Mountain-Regional-Park-and-Preserve/
This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley.
Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.