A rejuvenation of the land brought out about a dozen “fire walk” hikers to open space near the Sonoma Ecology Center recently. This area, known to locals as the Valley of the Moon, burned in the wildfires last fall.
Biologist Caitlin Cornwall leads the hike. She points to a group of madrones, which usually have a shiny red and brown bark. These are charred, with burnt leaves.
But Cornwall reminds the group to look up.
“All of those green leaves are new since the fire,” says Cornwall. “That tree looked dead, and pretty soon it’s going to be hard to tell that these trees burned.”
Farther down the trail, Cornwall finds an oak tree with leaves sprouting from its trunk.
“You just don’t see this normally,” she says. “I’ve been talking about these species for 30 years and I didn’t know they could do this.”
Cornwall has been leading these fire recovery walks since December, but now with spring just around the corner, these charred lands are beginning to explode with color.
Cornwall is not surprised. She says fire has benefits for the land.
Native Americans who lived here would even periodically start grass fires to stimulate plant growth, Cornwall says.
“The effects of fire are like a renewal,” says Cornwall. “It gets rid of dead vegetation, it cleans the ground surface of diseases and it makes room for more plants to grow.”
That practice ended when Europeans settled California. But Cornwall says the plants are still well adapted to the fires we experience now. And she says these fires are not all bad. It’s actually what helps keep this natural landscape healthy.
“The fires caused loss and trauma and we need to do a lot more as a society to better prepare for them, but we also live in a place where the beauty that we love here so much is not threatened by an event like this,” says Cornwall.
Oakmont resident Margaret Neilsen says she came on this walk as part of her own healing process from the wildfires.
“I know this isn’t going to help the people who lost their homes,” says Neilsen. “But I feel much better knowing that at least the landscape is going to recover.”
The Sonoma Ecology Center is hosting “Fire Recovery Walks” through February.