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Signs of Life Sprout Up In North Bay’s Burned Natural Landscapes

The Sonoma Ecology Center is hosting

Credit: Tiffany Camhi/KQED

Above: The Sonoma Ecology Center is hosting "Fire Walks" through burned areas around Sonoma County. In this undated picture, people walk along a trail in Sonoma.

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 madrone trees. These trees usually have a shiny, red and brown bark. These ones are charred, with burned leaves. But Cornwall reminds the group to look up.

“All of those green leaves are new since the fire,” said Cornwall. “That tree looked dead, and pretty soon it’s going to be hard to tell that these trees burned.”

Farther down along the trail, Cornwall finds an oak tree with leaves sprouting from its trunk.

“You just don’t see this normally,” said Cornwall. “I’ve been talking about these species for 30 years and I didn’t know they could do this.”

Photo credit: Tiffany Camhi/KQED

Biologist Caitlin Cornwall (right) leads curious hikers on a walk around Lake Suttonfield in this undated photo.

Cornwall’s 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 said fire has benefits for the land.

Native Americans who lived here historically would even periodically start grass fires to stimulate plant growth, Cornwall said.

“The effects of fire are like a renewal,” said 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 said the plants are still well adapted to the fires we experience now. And she said 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,” said Cornwall.

Photo credit: Tiffany Camhi/KQED

New plant life sprouts up in a burned area in Sonoma County in this undated photo.

Oakmont resident Margaret Neilsen said 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,” said 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.

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