When the Tubbs Fire hit Pepperwood near midnight Oct. 8, it burned hottest near the entrance of our 3,200-acre scientific preserve on Franz Valley Road, vaporizing two staff homes, our barn full of research and land management equipment, and the Hume Observatory. The latter lost a massive telescope belonging to the California Academy of Sciences, transformed into a small puddle of brass.
The fire spread over the remainder of the preserve — at much lower intensities — over the next week, ultimately burning over 90 percent of our property. As was the case for so many in the North Bay, our world was turned upside down overnight.
My overwhelming response upon reflecting over the last six months is one of gratitude for our community: heroic first responders, those who opened their homes to displaced families, and the many friends of Pepperwood who have selflessly lent their time, energy, and financial resources to help us recover and rebuild. The true colors of our community, warm with care and generosity, have shown through.
We spent the initial weeks after the fire navigating the same challenges facing thousands of us — finding new housing for staff, taking stock of our losses, working closely with our insurance providers, and coordinating removal of toxic fire debris.
Our administrative base at the Dwight Center for Conservation Science — a 9,400-square-foot green facility framed in steel and concrete, affectionately called the “science castle” by visiting kids — sustained minimal damage, and with the installation of port-a-potties, staff were able to return by Thanksgiving. We are grateful to both the Laguna Foundation and Sonoma Land Trust for lending us administrative space to keep our operations going in the interim!
In addition to Pepperwood’s water infrastructure, our telecom systems require a complete rebuild that is still underway — so currently all our phone calls remain forwarded to our finance and operation manager’s cell phone!
On the preserve, we are deeply engaged in making trails through wooded areas safe and accessible for time-sensitive research and spring educational programming. While many wooden features — including stiles and foot bridges — still need to be replaced, and there are miles of fencing to be restored, we have been able to once again open much of the preserve this spring for guided activities and scientific research. This research, conducted by Pepperwood and guest scientists, is focused like a laser beam on time-sensitive measurements of the impact of fire on our watersheds and ecosystem.
Pepperwood has an incredible opportunity to fill critical data gaps on fire behavior in our region. To date, most empirical studies of wildfire in California have been based in Southern California, a place with distinctly different geology, hydrology and vegetation.
Now we have a unique opportunity to improve models of wildfire for our local area — models that can help us understand vulnerabilities in the urban-wildland interface and better inform both natural resource management and wildfire response strategies moving forward.
Seven months after the Tubbs Fire, Pepperwood’s grassland hillsides have transitioned from charcoal to an especially vibrant green and the first wildflower blooms of spring hint that we may be in for some spectacular displays in the wake of the flames.
Our wildlife cameras — half of which survived — have documented the return of mountain lion, black bear, bobcat, coyote, and other familiar faces. The voices of school children once again echo through the Dwight Center courtyard. Thanks to you, the living laboratory that is Pepperwood is already bustling with activity this spring — from reemerging wildlife, to curious students, to researchers dedicated to improving our understanding of fire ecology.
Lisa Micheli, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of the Pepperwood Foundation (pepperwoodpreserve.org). Pepperwood is an ecology institute and 3,200-acre preserve located in eastern Sonoma County. Pepperwood’s Dwight Center for Conservation Science produces climate-ecosystem research, provides environmental education opportunities for all ages and facilitates a citizen science initiative.