Sonoma Valley Fire Recovery
The devastating fires of October 2017 have created serious challenges for Sonoma Valley residents, many of whom are concerned about soil erosion, toxic runoff, and the health of fire-ravaged landscapes. Read on for insights and advice on these issues, presented by our staff of expert ecologists.
All residents, especially property owners and caretakers, are encouraged to follow the guidelines below in order to ensure the continued health of our beautiful Valley. By working together, the people of Sonoma Valley will rebuild – and make our home more healthy and sustainable than ever before.
The Post-Fire Landscape
Though at first sight a blackened landscape can look badly damaged, look closely, now that a year has passed. Native grasses and flowers thrive in a burned landscape, and were seen in profusion after the first rains. The truth is, wildfire can be ecologically beneficial to California landscapes, especially when it’s a cooler fire that burns through the understory (the layer of vegetation beneath the main canopy of a forest), leaving a black ash on the ground. White ash, by contrast, indicates a very hot fire that may have killed the seed bank – but even hot fires don’t kill certain fire-adapted species such as those in chaparral.
In most cases, once man-made debris and ash are removed from a burn site, the land will heal itself in time. In many cases, and on most of any given property, the best thing to do will often be nothing.
Look for wildflowers to grow in great profusion for the next few years, including the “fire followers” that only appear after fire. Also watch for rare species such as spotted owls, which take advantage of burned landscapes.
Burned Tree Care
Even badly scarred native trees and large shrubs can recover over time, sometimes by re-sprouting at the base. Unless a blackened branch or tree would damage people or property if it fell, leave it in place until spring leaf-out, when it will be clear how much of it is dead. Meanwhile, even trees that are completely dead are still important as habitat, and their roots still hold soil in place and prevent erosion.
This excellent guide from the University of California provides specifics on how to assess and respond to damage to burned oak trees. Consult with an arborist if you think a large tree poses a danger and must be removed. Otherwise leave them be.
Steep burned hillsides can be unstable in heavy rains, increasing the risk of landsides. To avoid this outcome, use wattles as described above to keep soil from moving downhill and entering storm drains, culverts and creeks.
Other tips for keeping sediment out of waterways include: clear storm drains and culverts of debris to prevent flooding, redirecting sheet water into storm drains (and away from waterways); clear out gutters and ditches; repair fire breaks so they do not channel runoff but blend evenly with the slope of the land; minimize foot and equipment traffic as much as possible.
Ideally, stormwater should be allowed to sink into the soil and recharge our aquifers. More on stormwater management is available in this landowner’s guide from the Sonoma Resource Conservation District: Slow It. Spread It. Sink It!
Over broad areas of burned land, you can spread weed-free straw (rice straw is the safest) in a very thin layer to soften the impact of raindrops. (Evidence is mixed on the effectiveness of straw.) Don’t use whole bales, block the light from reaching the ground, or create clumps. To avoid planting fire-prone weeds, be very careful to use only certified weed-free straw.
Many residents feel the urge to reseed burned landscapes – but that’s not usually the best response! Sonoma Valley is a fire-adapted environment, and most native trees, shrubs and flowers will recover fully without our help. In fact, many need occasional fires to be healthy.
Still, there are some cases where careful reseeding is recommended. Here are guidelines for knowing when and how reseeding should occur:
- Sites where seeding might be needed tend to be sloped areas that burned very hot, leaving behind a white ash on the ground. Flat areas that burned at lower temperatures, leaving behind a black ash on the ground, generally do not need any seed or erosion control measures. If practical, a thin straw mulch will help hold soil in place (see above).
- Never put fertilizer on a burn site. Fertilizer will only enhance the growth of weeds, allowing them to outcompete native plants, and build up more flammable materials when the non-native annual grasses dry out in the summer.
- If seeding is necessary, use only sterile grass seed (wheat) or short-lived perennial native grass seed mixes sold for erosion control, such as “Holdfast” available at LeBallister’s Seed & Fertilizer in Santa Rosa.
- Adjust seeding rate according to the severity of the burn. In white ash areas, use at the full recommended rate, e.g. 10 lbs/acre. On black ash, either do not seed at all or seed at a reduced rate (e.g. 4 lbs/acre).
- Seeding on gentle slopes of 3:1 or less can benefit from straw with a “tackifier” to help hold the seed and straw in place. Straw provides moisture retention that will improve germination and reduce seed predation by birds and rodents. Seed just prior to rain, to reduce seed predation.
- Steeper slopes greater than 3:1 will need tackifier and straw, or a biodegradable erosion control fabric, to keep seed and soil from washing downslope. Consult with an erosion control specialist on steep slopes.
- Continue to monitor burn sites as the season progresses. Seedlings should start to emerge after the first few rains. If not, you may need to seed or reseed bare areas and possibly add erosion control measures if rills form or other soil movement is observed.
- No two sites are the same, and long-term monitoring with adaptive management is necessary to ensure success of seeding and erosion control efforts. Observe and adjust.
Fostering Wildlife Recovery
Animals instinctively know how to respond to wildfire – but it’s OK to give them a little help too. Here are some tips for aiding wild animals in burned areas:
- Put out low, shallow containers of water for animals to drink.
- Do not remove natural woody debris from your property, but instead make piles of this clean organic material in quiet corners of your property to provide habitat for smaller creatures like quail, lizards and frogs.
- Use native plant species or those known to mimic them. Local plant lists are here.
- Put up nest boxes.
- Leave burned branches, shrubs and trees in place unless they pose a danger.
- Keep domestic carnivores (dogs, cats) indoors and on leash.
- Where possible, remove fences to give animals more room to roam.
(Our Emergency Watershed Protection Program is designed to minimize toxic runoff. Click the link to find out how you can help us keep toxins out of our streams during the rainy season.)
Although burned vegetation is non-toxic, burnt man-made structures leave behind toxins including sulfates, nitrates, asbestos, and heavy metals. (Click here for a map of local structures that burned.) This toxic ash can wash into our waterways during heavy rains, so keeping the ash and debris in place until it can be hauled away has been a top priority.
Agencies, nonprofits, and residents worked extensively last season to contain and remove toxic ash and debris before the rains came. Authorities then followed procedures to remove most toxic ash and debris from burned sites with structures and vehicles. State agencies have also mapped the likelihood of debris flow.
Residents can still help contain remaining burned structures that have not yet been cleaned up, and by following erosion control measures as noted in the section above.
If using wattles to contain toxins, they should be placed 1) around burned structures and vehicles, containing the white ash area, 2) at the top of streambanks, even on small channels, and 3) around inlets of storm drains and road culverts. Wattle effectiveness is directly tied to how level they are. As runoff water hits the wattle, it needs to go through the wattle, not along it. Use a level so that the wattle line follows the land’s contours.
Wattles are still generally available at hardware stores and at some county locations.
If wattles are unavailable, use fallen branches, small berms, sandbags, check dams or staked boards – installed in the ways described above for wattles – in order to contain toxic ash.
What SEC Is Doing to Help
Sonoma Ecology Center was established in 1990 to help create a future where people, land, water and wildlife thrive. After more than a quarter century of working with our community to identify and lead actions that achieve and sustain ecological health in Sonoma Valley, we are well qualified to guide fire recovery efforts here.
As Sonoma Valley’s local “second responders,” we’ve been hard at work helping the community, and the environment, heal from wildfires that destroyed hundreds of structures and burned more than a quarter of the land in Sonoma Valley.
We’ve broken our fire response into three main components: education, active response, and prevention.
Knowledge is power, and by sharing knowledge on Sonoma Valley’s fire history and ecology – and the way these things impact local wildlife and watershed health – we’re helping our youth and adults build a more fire-resilient community.
We are helping coordinate fire response with multiple agencies and NGOs, resulting in the fastest possible assessment of burn intensity, erosion potential, water quality, stream protection and site remediation. Our maps, for example, have been crucial for getting information to the public. Our Sonoma Biochar Initiative is supplying and testing biochar for soil remediation on home sites and agricultural land.
Our restoration team provides on-the-ground services and knowledge unparalleled in Sonoma Valley when it comes to ecologically sensitive land repair and cleanup, replanting native species (grown in our nursery at Sonoma Garden Park), and restoring the cherished open spaces that we manage: Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Van Hoosear Wildflower Preserve, Nathanson Creek Preserve and Montini Open Space Preserve.
Wildfire has always been here and it will return – and when it does, how can we make sure our community is fire-resilient? We believe Sonoma Valley can rebuild with fire ecology in mind, so we’re joining the conversation at every level – including multi-agency meetings at the county level – to make sure local leaders have the information they need to make good decisions on the future of our Valley. Recently, the first Sustainable Sonoma Council meeting convened nearly 20 wide-ranging interest groups to share post-fire experiences and priorities with one another. With this meeting, Sustainable Sonoma is enabling community leaders to identify shared goals that we can only achieve together.
Here are some of the assets our team is able to put toward rebuilding a Sonoma Valley where people, land, water and wildlife thrive:
- Decades of experience in erosion control, ecological restoration, salmonid habitat protection and enhancement, storm water management, and slope stabilization
- Detailed knowledge of Sonoma Valley streams and roads, with a Knowledge Base covering more than a quarter century of research
- Working relationships with local, state, and federal agencies tasked with improving streams, stream crossings, culverts, ditches, etc., and with the local leaders who oversee their efforts
- Connections with local landowners, particularly along streams (dozens have already reached out to us)
- Large quantities of high-quality biochar for use in wattles and as soil remediation
- Skilled labor under experienced leadership, and the ability to marshal volunteer labor through our highly capable Volunteer Coordinator
- Heavy duty trucks, power tools, hand tools and other equipment
To learn more about what Sonoma Ecology Center can do to help you, contact us at email@example.com or 707-996-0712.
To find out how to volunteer your time in the service of rebuilding Sonoma Valley, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ways to Help
- Sonoma County Recovers: https://www.sonomacounty.recovers.org. Sign up to donate and/or volunteer.
- Sonoma County Resilience Fund: http://www.sonomacf.org
- Sonoma Valley Ecological Relief Fund: https://www.sonomaecologycenter.org/sonoma-valley-fires-fund/
- Rebuild North Bay: https://www.rebuildnorthbay.org
- USDA Resources for Recovery: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/wa/home/?cid=STELPRDB1259629
- Napa RCD: http://naparcd.org/fire/
- Sonoma RCD: http://sonomarcd.org/resources/fire-recovery/
- Las Pilitas Nursery: http://www.laspilitas.com/fire.htm
- Burned Oaks: Which Ones Will Survive? (pdf): http://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8445.pdf
- A Handbook for Small-Scale Erosion Control (pdf): http://www.marinrcd.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Groundwork-A-Handbook-for-Small-Scale-Erosion-Control-in-Coastal-California.pdf
- First aid for Sonoma County’s fire-damaged soil: http://www.pressdemocrat.com/lifestyle/homeandgarden/7531859-181/first-aid-for-sonoma-countys
Post-Fire Safety and Clean-up
- Wildfire Recovery Resources: http://wildfirerecovery.org/resources/debris-removal/
- Returning to Your Property After a Fire: http://sonomacounty.ca.gov/EOC-and-PIO/Fires-October-2017/Returning-to-your-Property-after-a-Fire/
- Sonoma County Fire Information: http://sonomacounty.ca.gov/EOC-and-PIO/Fires-October-2017/Fire-Information/
- KQED: http://ww2.kqed.org/science/2017/10/26/bay-area-sprawl-has-put-homes-in-the-path-of-fires-what-now/
- KQED: https://ww2.kqed.org/science/2014/04/24/hikers-use-smartphones-to-capture-fire-recovery-on-mt-diablo/
- Greenbelt Alliance: https://www.greenbelt.org/blog/north-bay-fires-recovery-resiliency
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