Valley Forum: A time of rebirth and renewal

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This is the time for looking back on the year that was. And in Sonoma Valley, when people think of 2018, one theme definitely stands out: rebirth and renewal.

The reason for this is clear enough. In late 2017, wildfire consumed more than a quarter of Sonoma Valley. Ultimately more than 30,000 acres and hundreds of properties burned in Sonoma Valley alone, leaving many people with no homes to return to. The fire also consumed three-quarters of Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. Some nearby communities had it even worse.

So naturally, 2018 was spent cleaning up and rebuilding. And though the work is not yet done, what was accomplished is inspiring. At Sonoma Ecology Center we saw some of this first hand, as we worked to contain toxic debris from burned structures along Valley waterways, assisted in erosion control projects, and fixed Sugarloaf’s damaged trails and infrastructure.

At the same time, there was worry among residents for the scarred landscape and its plants and animals. In response to these concerns, we set up free public walks into burned areas so people could see the healing process with their own eyes. One year later, much of Sonoma Valley’s fire-adapted landscape is green and full of life again.

Here is a closer look at some of the reasons why 2018 was a year of healing. They are testament to the power of both human communities and the natural world to rise from the ashes and rebuild, or be reborn, anew.

Nature Rebounds

Open spaces have healed in most places, with wildlife – including black bears, mountain lions and other favorites – moving back in, and “fire followers,” flowers that emerge after fires, popping up around the region. Many oaks, madrones and other hardwoods re-sprouted from their own charred remains, and deep-rooted native grasses fared better than their invasive counterparts. As State Parks biologist Bill Miller explained, “We live in a fire-adapted landscape. The wildflowers should be amazing for the next few years. The chaparral plants will regrow from seeds or stump crowns, and many oaks did not burn.”

Community Steps Up

Volunteers showed their mettle this year, dedicating thousands of hours to shoring up burned structures and to rebuilding Sugarloaf’s damaged trails and bridges. In a few short months, 249 burned structures were contained, and within the year Sugarloaf was fully reopened – proof of how cooperation and cohesion can overcome any obstacle. Those were just Sonoma Ecology Center projects; an immeasurable amount of work was done around the Valley by selfless people intent on helping others get through a difficult time.

Looking Ahead

Local residents have learned a few lessons from the 2017 fires, and started some new strategies. At Sonoma Ecology Center, we’re now focused on erosion control near streams, as burned hillsides are more likely to give way in heavy rains. We also stepped up the launch of Sustainable Sonoma, which is designed to find comprehensive solutions to difficult problems like housing – and, indeed, the group’s first major report found that housing affordability is the top concern in Sonoma Valley. Meanwhile, regional groups and agencies are redoubling efforts to make our Valley and county more resilient. For example, we’re making drought-tolerant and fire-adapted landscapes the norm during rebuilding efforts. (Check out our pdf brochure on fire-smart landscaping at www.sonomaecologycenter.org.)

We still have a way to go in preparing for the disruptions that come with living in coastal California under a changing climate. This in an ever-changing place nowadays – but change is not always bad. Though the years to come may include floods and fires, population growth and housing shortages, we now know we can work together to surf the waves of change, to adapt as needed, to retain the community we love. Bring on 2019.

Richard Dale is the executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center.

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