Sonomaís new outdoors
Itís 1:30 in the morning, after the fires. Iím awake again. A friend calls it the witching hour. Itís the hour on Oct. 9 when much of Glen Ellen woke to wicked wind and wildfire, and the exodus began. Iím not going to sleep for a bit, so I might as well write about whatís on my mind.
For a year now, Iíve been writing articles for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat about how to enjoy the outdoors in Sonoma and beyond. The idea is that these stories Ė mostly about trails, since I compose hiking guidebooks Ė are durable. Generally, you can use a trail description for years. Generally, there isnít a lot that can significantly alter a hiking route.
Fire is an exception.
Check out the picture above. Itís of a trail every Glen Ellenite knows, even if they havenít hiked it. It stretches from Arnold Drive to Lake Suttonfield, part of the Sonoma Developmental Center property bordering Sonoma Valley Regional Park. Usually the track runs through grassland, green and mucky in the rainy season, gold and parched in the dry. Now itís black and raw.
A friend and I managed to get into Glen Ellen at midday after the fires broke out, and we witnessed the trailís transformation. We were checking on her husband, who was defending the familyís hilltop home. The Nuns Fire was in full bloom. When we drove past the regional parkís west side, flames were marching across the grasslands below Lake Suttonfield. From my friendís hilltop we watched the fire plume and reach into the woods. Licking across Arnold Drive, flames blocked our route back to sanctuary in the south. We escaped to the north; it was a wild ride.
The next day we were back. The hammer of mandatory evacuations had not yet emphatically come down. This time, when we drove by the regional park, the field below Lake Suttonfield was charcoal. The trail was a pale streak through the ash. Thatís when I snapped this picture.
So many things make me sad about these fires. But this photo, stark as it is, does not. I know it will be OK. The parklandís recovery will be slow and frustrating at first, but it will happen. And it will be cool.
It will start gray and grim. Sonoma may now have ghost parks. I first experienced a ghost forest walking the Nobles Emigrant Trail in Lassen Volcanic National Park in 2012. The Reading Fire had burned so hot in places it looked like some of the trees had been sucked underground by the blaze, leaving black holes where they once stood. The creaking of the dead standing, the sweet smell of burn, the silkiness of the ash underfoot, the dearth of birdsong, the black-and-white paletteÖ I turned around. I am unnerved just by the memory.
There may be places like that here now. Even as life inches back, they be too creepy to visit for long.
But that will change, and Lassen shows how. Older burns are scattered throughout the national park. Over the years Iíve watched these areas slowly, slowly, become hospitable. Thereís one old burn in particular that stands out. Fire blew through the woodlands on the east side of Butte and Snag Lakes in the mid-1990s, I believe. When I hiked the trail there in the early 2000s, charcoaled snags littered the forest floor, the understory was sparse, and the trees still standing and green were scorched and looked as wasted as todayís fire survivors.
Ten years later, the same stretch of trail ran through a healthy, sun-dappled woodland, with carpets of silver-leaf lupine and pinemat manzanita filling the gaps between the fallen trees, a crop of new evergreens stretching toward the sun while the old survivors stood rejuvenated, guardians of the saplings.
From the lessons of Lassen, and other beloved places, I have some idea of what to expect for my beloved, scorched, Sonoma outdoors.
Hereís what I can share:
The wildflowers will come back early. Thereís lots of noise that they will be spectacular in this first year of recovery Ė and they may be, in spots. But donít expect a superbloom. Where the fire burned hottest, the soil is sterile, and it will take longer for seeds to find purchase. Elsewhere though, look for the black and gray to blush green in patches after the rains come. Look for flashes of purple, or yellow, or white. Once you see one flower, youíll see many. Itís a bit like discovering the turret spider lairs in Glen Ellenís Bouverie Preserve.
Oh, the turret spiders. About them, I donít know. But I suspect theyíve survived. I suspect they have their ways.
Dead standing trees, as it turns out, are habitat for birds. Amid the creaking and groaning, listen for the knock, knock, knock of woodpeckers doing their acorn-stashing, bug-harvesting thing. Crows will stand out in the mix, which seems appropriate. They are conspicuous in a burnt woodland, black as charcoal, their caws unmuffled by foliage. At Dunbar School, in the toasted canopies of some of the grand old oaks, I saw the flash of a bluebird. A Bewickís wren sheltered in the shade of a potted plant on the campus after making an unexpected foray into a classroom. In a giant eucalyptus on the edge of Vintage Lane, next to a devastated home, the birdsong reached a crescendo and held there, uninterrupted, unstoppable.
Itíll take a while for the smell of the countryside to right itself. Those fragrances are powerful. I remember when I first drove up London Ranch Road to what would become my Glen Ellen home after 15 years in Colorado, where I had grown used to the scent of a pine forest. It was fall in Californiaís oak savannah, and I was gobsmacked by the smell of home. Bay laurel, with a hint of eucalyptus. Thereís oak in there I suppose, and madrone, and sage, but itís the bay that lights up the olfactory senses. That perfume wonít be evident in the worst burns for a year, perhaps two, and maybe longer. In the meantime, our parklands will smell like wildfire: sweet, cloying, strong enough to taste.
The sounds will be creepy. In a pine forest, the snags groan in the slightest breeze. They are weak, often rootless, and their moaning is unsettling. Itís like they donít want to fall, and theyíre grunting with the effort to stay upright. I donít know what that effort sounds like in an oak woodland, but these old trees will be struggling and aching too. I will find out in the months ahead.
As for the feeling? What will it be like to look up into a canopy stripped of leaves and the tiny limbs that offered them to the sun? What will it be like to hear a breeze come up? Will the wind jangle me, like it does now? Will I see critters more easily, now that the underbrush is gone? Or have the critters all run away? What will happen when the rains come? Will the creeks run dark with ash?
I donít know. And I suspect most of our damaged public and private open spaces will be off limits until land managers can ensure explorers will be safe walking, cycling, boating in the burned parks. Theyíll want to mitigate any obvious dangers, close trails where infrastructure like bridges have been destroyed, take down trees they know pose a threat, ensure that route-finding is possible. Check with rangers before you head into any damaged park, as hazards may change.
I donít know. But I, like so many other lovers of Sonomaís outdoors, will be walking day by day and watching the wildlands heal themselves. They will, as we will. Be safe. Sonoma strong.