What Happens to Land After It Burns?

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Sonoma County is still reeling after 250 wildland fires tore through northern California in October of 2017. They were the deadliest fires on record in California, destroying lives and communities and burning thousands of buildings to the ground.

Now that the toxic smoke has cleared, the region is faced with more than $9 billion in damage and over 245,000 acres of burned land. How will this land recover?

To answer that, we must examine the region’s climate. In northern California, it will likely take years for the burned land to fully recover. Read on to understand the recovery process and the dangers along the way, as well as how you can help support the restoration efforts.

The Initial Recovery: Ash, Seeds, and Sprouts

In the aftermath of such devastating fires, you may be inclined to avoid the region out of fear that the land is ruined — wineries are certainly struggling to draw in tourists again — but much of Napa Valley and downtown Sonoma are relatively undamaged.

Many of the barren swathes left by the fire are already transforming. In areas where the ash is black, the seed bank under the soil is still safe; in fact, it actually contains many species that are perfectly adapted to thriving in post-fire environments. Sprouts are starting to grow from downed trees and shrubs, and grass is beginning to brighten up the landscape.

As a region that’s regularly affected by wildfires, the land in California is adapted to recover; however, the soil erosion due to the intensity of the October fires will significantly slow down the recovery process. Man-made constructs create another obstacle, as the debris and ash from burned buildings can slow regrowth. With nearly 9,000 structures destroyed and even more damaged, the hardest hit areas are littered with half-burned houses, creating a barren, post-apocalyptic atmosphere. These areas will likely need more time for new growth to push its way through the debris and waste.

Lingering Dangers: Trees, Runoff, and Landslides

While the immediate danger is over and new sprouts are beginning to come up, there are always lingering risks in fire-damaged regions. Those who live or visit these areas should be cautious of the weakened environment in the aftermath of fire.

While anyone whose home has been damaged by fire will have it assessed before returning to the property, it’s important to remember that damaged trees and other structures pose safety hazards, too, as their structural integrity has been compromised. Be cautious around damaged trees, because they are more prone to falling or breaking, which can cause serious injury. Even trees that may appear sturdy on the outside may be significantly weakened by the fire; sometimes all it takes is a strong wind or rain to bring them down.

The fire itself has already caused the soil to erode, but that erosion is exacerbated by the removal of burned trees and shrubs. On top of that, toxic runoff from destroyed buildings compounds the effect, running through the eroded soil and contaminating the rivers and streams already threatened by regular droughts. Under these circumstances, any sediment entering waterways can lead to landslides – a risk for both the landscape and the lives of the local population.

In the aftermath of such large wildfires, the key to helping the land (and the community) bloom again is to mitigate soil erosion and prevent toxic runoff from gaining momentum, in order to keep residents safe and to give trees and other plants their best chance to regrow.

What Can You Do to Help?

To combat the toxic runoff and soil erosion, the Sonoma Ecology Center wants to install erosion control on and around fire-damaged sites. This involves using natural fiber rolls called wattles, which allow water from a runoff to flow through but will catch debris and larger sediment, in order to prevent landslides from beginning. Other materials can be used to help block runoff debris from causing a hazard, such as fallen branches, small berms, sandbags, and staked boards.

If you live in or around the affected areas, you can take action to help keep these dangers at bay, by putting up wattle around your property. You can also replant native plant species in appropriate areas in your community to help support regrowth. Just be sure to use local seed stock that can re-sprout, and remove any burned invasive species.

When it comes to preventing landslides, authorities recommend:

  • clearing your storm drain and culverts
  • making sure water is directed to proper drains
  • repairing gutters, ditches, and fire breaks
  • minimizing foot traffic in landslide-prone regions
  • reducing the use of machinery that disturbs the earth

Don’t be tempted to cut down burned trees or investigate newly burned areas. One of the most important things you can do to help land after it burns is to leave it alone. Cleaning up fire-damaged regions by removing burned trees often makes soil erosion worse. Many trees can grow back from branches or roots, so try to be patient for the sake of the environment — and your own safety.

If you live in an area that’s prone to wildfires, it’s wise to be prepared for fire to occur. In the aftermath of a devastating blaze, like those that battered the Sonoma region, no one wants to think about another wildland fire tearing through their community. The reality is, if you live in a dry and rural area, there’s always a risk of fire and the best thing you can do is to be proactive to keep yourself and your property as safe as possible. Make sure you keep your property well-maintained and free of overgrowth to reduce the risk of wildfire spreading to your home, and that you have adequate home fire protection equipment.

Always contact your local authority before attempting to help the burned land in your area recover. While the October fires were especially bad, remember this region has been through wildfire before. Together, nature and the authorities responsible for the recovery will ensure a safe and effective restoration in an appropriate amount of time.

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