Fire Recovery in Northern California

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Miscellaneous

The devastating Northern California firestorm that swept through Mendocino,  Napa, and Sonoma Counties in October left the earth scorched.

California woodland landscape after 2017 Sonoma fires, Pepperwood Preserve

Now less than three months later 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.

Clearing out the understory is a periodic process that can be disastrous for homes built in the woodlands, but an opportunity for an ecological cleansing. The California landscape has evolved with fire, indeed, the native Americans regularly burned grasslands to regenerate grasses and keep down the shrubs.

California native landscape, recovery after fires, Pepperwood Preserve

All of the leaves on these trees below were scorched, this is not autumn foliage color, and when the land recovers in the spring it will look like a green park.

Burned Oaks backlit, California native landscape after 2017 Sonoma fires

Walking in these woodlands now 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 Oak trees on hillside, grass recovering; Fire damage and recovery from Nuns fire October 2017, Sonoma Valley Regional Park, California

California Oaks evolved with fire and now, after a conflagration, these trees show their strength in new ways. 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:

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

Acorns are cracking open and putting down roots.

Bunch grasses are rejuvenating:

Grass resprouting, California native landscape, recovery after 2017 Sonoma fires

In some places ashy 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.

Oak tree ghost ashes on blackened earth from Sonoma Nuns fire October 2017.

Some of the trees look like standing ghosts.

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

Other trees simply burned black.

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

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.

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

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

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Saxon Holt

Saxon Holt

Saxon Holt is the owner of, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at
Saxon Holt

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