The California landscape has always been shaped by fire.

Blackened hills, burned trees and new green grass; Fire damage and recovery from Nuns fire October 2017, Sonoma Valley

Now two months after the firestorms in Mendocino, Napa, and Sonoma Counties, we begin to see the landscape recovering. With a few inches of blessed rain since the fires, the annual grasses have started to green up, creating a eerie juxtaposition to the blackened trees.

See previous report on recovery at Pepperwood Preserve.

Walking in these woodlands is a raw experience, not ready for human interpretation.  Nature just wants to recover and not be watched. I feel like I am trespassing in a boudoir; the woods are bare, naked, the underbrush is mostly gone. There are no birds.

Yet, there is a determined beauty. The landscape has been abruptly transformed, but it is not dead.

Burned trees and lost foliage on hillside; Sonoma Valley Regional Park, California

These Oaks evolved with fire and only now, after a conflagration that was much more a human tragedy that a ecological one, these trees show their strength in new ways.

Burned Oak trees on hillside, grass recovering; Fire damage and recovery from Nuns fire October 2017, Sonoma Valley Regional Park, California

It will take many months to fully evaluate which trees will survive, and years for the landscape to recover but the signs are  already unmistakable.

Leaves are resprouting:

Some trees are even trying to flower:

Quercus agrifolia, releaf and recovery from Nuns fire October 2017, Sonoma Valley Regional Park, California

Charred saplings are putting up fresh growth from the scorched earth:

Oaks resprouting from charred saplings; Fire damage and recovery from Nuns fire October 2017, Sonoma Valley Regional Park, California

Acorns are cracking open and putting down roots.

Acorn sprouting; Fire damage and recovery from Nuns fire October 2017, Sonoma Valley Regional Park.

Most of the acorns were certainly burned, but the fire burned quickly and moved on. Not all acorns were lost.

These acorns, sprouting from trees native to the site, are showing their resiliency and adaptation to fire.

We see these woodlands recovering on their own. Here at least, there will be no need to bring in new trees sprouted from acorns not native to this exact ecosystem.

It remains to be seen whether returning rodents and hungry deer will browse this new growth but there are encouraging signs that many of the standing Oaks were charred but not destroyed.

Some of the lichen on the trees have survived:

And a slime fungus oosing out of the ground shows the soil is not destroyed.

Orange fungus developing in ashes under burned Oak tree

In some parts of these woods the soil is covered with white ash where I believe downed trees were already on the ground.

Oak tree ghost ashes on blackened earth; Fire damage and recovery from Nuns fire October 2017, Sonoma Valley Regional Park.

These downed trees burned to ashes, leaving skeletons, further adding to the eerie feeling not belonging here.

Oak tree ash skeleton
Charred earth, ashes, and oak tree ghost skeletons; from Nuns fire October 2017, Sonoma Valley Regional Park.

In some places these ash remnants seem to be pools of destruction in a surreal landscape of fire ravaged trees, some burned charcoal,  some an ashen gray, some with browned, scorched leaves still hanging on them.

Some of the trees look like standing ghosts.

Burned Oak trees with ashen trunks; Fire damage, Nuns fire October 2017, Sonoma Valley Regional Park

Close inspection of the burned bark on these ghost trees seems to indicate the bark turned to white ash in place.

Other trees simply burned black.

Majestic Oak tree burned; Fire damage and recovery from California Nuns fire October 2017, Sonoma Valley Regional Park.

I find these trees to be a extraordinarily beautiful and I don’t know why I am not sad.  They may be dead; they are certainly damaged, but without a human to determine beauty or function, the trees just are, strong, silent, and nobleconnecting the earth and the sky.

We will pass through these woods, among skeletons and through the ashes, along trails turning green where we have tamped in the grass seeds.

Recovery will take years and it surely will look different once we know which tree survived.  It will be beautiful still.

In the shining afternoon sun we may even pretend the burned shrubs have taken on fall color.

Grasses resprouting under blackened Oak trees and burned Manzanita; Fire damage and recovery Sonoma Valley Regional Park

Determined Beauty. Onward

Burned Oak trees on hillside composite with Oak seedling resprouting, after Nuns Wildfire, Sonoma Valley Regional Park.

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