Fire and Landscape

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The natural world has often awed Michael Ellis but the wildfires near his Santa Rosa home was awe of a different magnitude. Here’s his Perspective on fire and the California landscape.

On the first morning of the fire I rode my bike from my house in Santa Rosa to the nearby Home Depot. I watched the city burn. Just north of Kaiser the Journeys End mobile home park was still ablaze and right across the street from me was a bit of native California forest. I was mesmerized as the fire ate its way through the Douglas fir/oak woodland. I heard the trees crackling and felt the intense heat. Spot fires popped up on the nearby hillside threatening even more homes. It is one thing to note intellectually the power and fury of unleashed fire and it's another thing entirely to know it viscerally in your body, as many people in my hometown now do.

California has a Mediterranean type climate and part of that equation is a six-month long drought period. Regular but not frequent fires have helped shape the vegetation and plants have adapted to being burned. Naturally occurring fires are caused by lightning and the San Francisco area only has three lightning days per year. These are most often in the autumn, the driest time. These natural fires only occur every 25 to 70 years but frequent enough to result in fire-adapted vegetation.

We have significantly suppressed fires across the Western US since around 1910. This has allowed several things to occur. One is a significant buildup of combustible material and another is the encroachment and growth of conifers, especially Douglas fir, into the oak woodlands. And why is that important? Oak trees are resistant to and even thrive from low intensity but regular fires. Douglas firs that get established in oak woodlands grow very quickly and without these recurring fires they are soon overshadowing the oaks. The Doug firs are extremely flammable. And the result can be catastrophic when fire arises that is either natural or human-induced.

Nature is resilient, the wild lands will return. Humans are also resilient. Let us hope lessons are learned and when we rebuild our homes we understand a bit more fully the role of wildfire in our neighborhoods.


This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis lives in Santa Rosa and is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world.