Sonoma Ecology Center

Preparing for Sonoma Valley Wildfires

Certain wildfires remain fresh in people’s minds in these parts. One was in 1923, when a fast-moving blaze swept westward through the Mayacamas and into Sonoma Valley, reducing much of the Springs to ashes. Four decades later, in 1964, the Nunns Canyon Fire followed a similar trajectory, burning 10,000 acres over three days. Both fires came in September, and both decimated large swaths of Sonoma Valley. There have been others since then, too, like the Cavedale Fire of 1996, although none quite as destructive.

Today the danger of wildfire in Sonoma Valley is higher than ever, and it’s important for locals to know the proper ways to deal with this threat. Too often, fear makes people cut away indiscriminately at the plants around their houses, creating dead zones, erosion, and invasions of fire-prone weeds. In many situations, the most effective focus is fire-proofing the house, not the land around it. (See these balanced guidelines to help keep you safe without destroying the beauty of your property!) Other tips to avoid starting fires: don’t park vehicles in dry grass, and use a weed whip or mower in the morning when it’s cool and damp.

Of course, protecting one house at a time isn’t enough. The real solutions are to reverse climate change (we’re working on it!) and take better care of our forests and wildlands. A key tool is prescribed fire, also called controlled burns, to overcome almost 200 years of fire suppression here, which has left us with a massive buildup of incendiary dead fuels. Audubon Canyon Ranch, which manages Bouverie Preserve, is working with state agency Cal Fire to organize prescribed burns throughout the region, including one held at the preserve last May. Sonoma Ecology Center is working with our partners, from private landowners to State Parks, to get in line with several more planned burns for the near future, including at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and Van Hoosear Wildflower Preserve. Low-intensity, frequent fires – like the ones native Californians used for thousands of years – are controllable, and rejuvenate natural plant communities in numerous ways.

For the bigger picture, researchers at Sonoma Ecology Center are helping local leaders, planners and landowners understand the risks of climate change and the best ways to adapt. We were the lead authors of a 2014 report for Sonoma County, “Climate Hazards and Vulnerabilities,” which noted that we can expect hotter days, drier weather and more fuel, resulting in “a fire regime akin to that experienced today in the Santa Monica Mountains of southern California” (see page 38). And we were lead authors on a more upbeat 2016 report, “Roadmap for Climate Resilience in Sonoma County,” which highlights the many benefits that would be achieved through a recommended program to “Reduce forest flammability in strategic locations by thinning and controlled burning in ways that improve biodiversity, reduce landslide potential, increase water supply, and create local jobs.” (Both reports were written as part of the North Bay Climate Adaptation Initiative, an organization we co-founded.)

If you know a property where a controlled burn is wanted, please let us know!