show menu

Healing the Land After the Fire

By The Sonoma Ecology Center

The devastating fires of October 2017 have created serious challenges for residents, many of whom are concerned about soil erosion, toxic runoff, and the health of fire-ravaged landscapes. Read on for insights and advice on these issues, presented by our staff of expert ecologists.

All residents, especially property owners and caretakers, are encouraged to follow the guidelines below in order to ensure the continued health of our beautiful county. By working together, we will rebuild – and make our home more healthy and sustainable than ever before.

The Post-Fire Landscape

Though at first sight a blackened landscape can look badly damaged, look again after the first rains. Native grasses and flowers thrive in a burned landscape, and will begin poking up as soon as the time is right. The truth is, wildfire can be ecologically beneficial to California landscapes, especially when it’s a cooler fire that burns through the understory (the layer of vegetation beneath the main canopy of a forest), leaving a black ash on the ground.

White ash, by contrast, indicates a very hot fire that may have killed the seed bank – but even hot fires don’t kill certain fire-adapted species.

In most cases, once man-made debris and ash are removed from a burn site, the land will heal itself in time. In many cases, and on most of any given property, the best thing to do will often be nothing.

Look for wildflowers to grow in great profusion for the next few years, including the “fire followers” that only appear after fire. Also watch for rare species such as spotted owls, which take advantage of burned landscapes.

Toxic Runoff

Although burned vegetation is non-toxic, burnt man-made structures leave behind toxins including sulfates, nitrates, asbestos, and heavy metals. This toxic ash can wash into our waterways during heavy rains, so keeping the ash and debris in place until it can be hauled away is a top priority.

Authorities are quickly following their procedure for removing toxic ash and debris from burned sites with structures and vehicles – let them do it. State agencies have mapped the likelihood of debris flow. Many agencies, nonprofits and residents are working quickly to contain and remove toxic ash and debris before heavy rains come.

Residents can help by using natural-fiber rolls called “wattles.” The wattles are staked to the ground, where they filter sediment and debris while letting water seep through. Wattles may be made of weed-free straw or coconut fiber called “coir,” and may be made with biochar or mushroom spores to increase uptake of toxics.

Wattles should be placed:

1) around burned structures and vehicles, containing the white ash area,

2) at the top of streambanks, even on small channels, and

3) around inlets of storm drains and road culverts.

Wattle effectiveness is directly tied to how level they are. As runoff water hits the wattle, it needs to go through the wattle, not along it. Use a level so that the wattle line follows the land’s contours.

Wattles are in high demand. More are being made available every day. If wattles are unavailable, use fallen branches, small berms, sandbags, check dams or staked boards – installed in the ways described above for wattles – in order to contain toxic ash.

Burned Tree Care

Even badly scarred native trees and large shrubs can recover over time, sometimes by re-sprouting at the base. Unless a blackened branch or tree would damage people or property if it fell, leave it in place until spring leaf-out, when it will be clear how much of it is dead. Meanwhile, even trees that are completely dead are still important as habitat, and their roots still hold soil in place and prevent erosion.

The University of California provides specifics on how to assess and respond to damage to burned oak trees.(Burned Oaks: Which Ones will Survive?)Consult with an arborist if you think a large tree poses a danger and must be removed. Otherwise leave them be.


Many residents feel the urge to reseed burned landscapes – but that’s not usually the best response! Sonoma County is a fire-adapted environment, and most native trees, shrubs and flowers will recover fully without our help. In fact, many need occasional fires to be healthy.

Still, there are some cases where careful reseeding is recommended.

Here are guidelines for knowing when and how reseeding should occur:

Sites where seeding might be needed tend to be sloped areas that burned very hot, leaving behind a white ash on the ground. Flat areas that burned at lower temperatures, leaving behind a black ash on the ground, generally do not need any seed or erosion control measures. If practical, a thin straw mulch will help hold soil in place (see above).

Never put fertilizer on a burn site. Fertilizer will only enhance the growth of weeds, allowing them to outcompete native plants, and build up more flammable materials when the non-native annual grasses dry out in the summer.

If seeding is necessary, use only sterile grass seed (wheat) or short-lived perennial native grass seed mixes sold for erosion control, such as “Holdfast” available at LeBallister’s Seed & Fertilizer in Santa Rosa.

Adjust seeding rate according to the severity of the burn. In white ash areas, use at the full recommended rate, e.g. 10 lbs/acre. On black ash, either do not seed at all or seed at 4 lbs/acre.

Seeding on gentle slopes of 3:1 or less can benefit from straw with a “tackifier” to help hold the seed and straw in place. Straw provides moisture retention that will improve germination and reduce seed predation by birds and rodents. Seed just prior to rain, to reduce seed predation.

Steeper slopes greater than 3:1 will need tackifier and straw, or a biodegradable erosion control fabric, to keep seed and soil from washing downslope.

Continue to monitor burn sites as the season progresses. Seedlings should start to emerge after the first few rains. If not, you may need to seed or reseed bare areas and possibly add erosion control measures if rills form or other soil movement is observed.

No two sites are the same, and long-term monitoring with adaptive management is necessary to ensure success of seeding and erosion control efforts. Observe and adjust.

Fostering Wildlife Recovery

Animals instinctively know how to respond to wildfire – but it’s OK to give them a little help too.

Here are some tips for aiding wild animals in burned areas:

• Put out low, shallow containers of water for animals to drink.

• Do not remove natural woody debris from your property, but instead make piles of this clean organic material in quiet corners of your property to provide habitat for smaller creatures like quail, lizards and frogs.

• Use native plant species or those known to mimic them. Local plant lists are available from the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society

• Put up nest boxes.

• Leave burned branches, shrubs and trees in place unless they pose a danger.

• Keep domestic carnivores (dogs, cats) indoors and on leash.

• Where possible, remove fences to give animals more room to roam.


Wildfire has always been here and it will return – and when it does, how can we make sure our community is fire-resilient? We believe Sonoma County can rebuild with fire ecology in mind, so we’re joining the conversation at every level – including multi-agency meetings at the county level – to make sure local leaders have the information they need to make good decisions on the future of our home.

Recently, the first Sustainable Sonoma Council meeting convened nearly 20 wide-ranging interest groups to share post-fire experiences and priorities with one another. With this meeting, Sustainable Sonoma is enabling community leaders to identify shared goals that we can only achieve together.


Knowledge is power, and by sharing knowledge on fire history and ecology – and the way these things impact local wildlife and watershed health – we’re helping our youth and adults build a more fire-resilient community.

To learn more about what Sonoma Ecology Center can do to help you, contact us at or 707-996-0712.

Subscribe to our Newsletter to learn about the latest projects, upcoming events and educational opportunities.

To find out how to volunteer your time in the service of rebuilding Sonoma Valley, contact us at

Donate to Sonoma Ecology Center’s Sonoma Valley Fires Ecological Relief Fund and help us continue our work in the service of Sonoma Valley’s environment

We've moved our commenting system to Disqus, a widely used community engagement tool that you may already be using on other websites. If you're a registered Disqus user, your account will work on the Gazette as well. If you'd like to sign up to comment, visit
Show Comment