Two months after firestorms raced through Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino Counties, parks that had been in the path of the fires are starting to reopen. When we heard that Shiloh Ranch Regional Park had opened to hikers, we decided to take a hike and to see what damage the fires had wrought.
Shiloh is an 860-acre mixed woodland of oak, chaparral and fir forest on the hilly east edge of the Santa Rosa plain that had once been a cattle ranch. About 93 percent of the park burned. Firefighters lit backfires through the park to help defend the city of Windsor and stop the fire’s spread. They also used bulldozers to carve fire lines. So we expected to find a treeless burned out mess.
What we found was remarkably like the park we had known before the fire. Crews have removed dead trees and installed erosion control wattles on burned slopes. Underbrush had burned and the forest looked more open, but most of the trees should recover.
So my worry about the fate of the oak forest was unfounded. I don’t understand this. How could a fire so hot that it burned thousands of buildings to the ground leave the forest only singed? I do know that this landscape has always contended with fire as part of its natural life cycle and in some ways even depends on it.
Already we can see signs of new growth. Soap plant and Douglas iris poke through the blackened earth. Trees send up new shoots at the ends of their branches. The plants and their communities are healing.
As we drove back home to our neighborhood in the northeast part of Santa Rosa, we passed some of the burned out sections of the city. Chimneys jut from blackened lots and the carapaces of cars and metal appliances wait to be collected by cleanup crews.
Back in our neighborhood, we walked the few blocks to our little patch of open space, Paulin Creek Preserve, a spot of oak woodland that escaped the fire and, thanks to a group of savvy neighbors, also escaped development. It is among the many things for which we are thankful.