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By Ranger Christine Cardosi

May contain: fire
Sycamore Grove Park August 2020

Valley Wilds Article 

For two years, Conni Naylor, Mary Ann Hannon, and Michael White have walked the park out to the upper property, along the trails into the rolling hills and the sprawling oak savannah. Their destination each time has been a canyon housing oak trees. They’ve been hiking this regular route once a month for two years to see changes—changes in the park throughout the seasons, changes in the grasslands, and especially changes of the trees—after the fire. 

On August 16th, 2020, thousands of dry lightning strikes occurred through much of Northern California—including Sycamore Grove Park. Part of the northernmost reaches of what would be called the SCU Lightning Complex fires, the fire in Sycamore Grove Park burned approximately 180 acres through grassland and oak savannah. It is the effects of and recovery from these fires that Conni, Mary Ann, and Michael have volunteered their time to observe these past two years. 

Five valley oaks, charred and blackened by the fire, were chosen by former LARPD Ranger Amy Wolitzer and Mary Ann for study. Trunks burned, cambium exposed leaves scorched—all five of these trees bore varying scars from the wildfire. And within weeks they all showed signs of recovery. 

How does an oak tree recover when as much as 100% of its canopy no longer has green leaves? What leaves weren’t torched in the active fire and burned away remained dead on the trees, “scorched” and no longer able to photosynthesize. Over their months of observations, the volunteers discovered that the oaks began to put out new leaves in surprising places—along their stems, trunks, and branches—a kind of recovery strategy known as “epicormic growth.” These previously dormant buds, cued by the presence of fire and increased exposure to light, helped these trees produce the sugars they need to stay alive. Now, two years later, 2 of the 5 trees have even recovered enough to begin producing acorns again! 

Oaks were not the only plants the volunteers observed recovering from the fire. What was blackened earth in August 2020 became a lush, green grassland beneath the oak trees with the first winter rains only months later. Pinks, whites, yellows, and purples hailed the return of native wildflowers: checkerbloom, fiddleneck, yarrow, brodiaea, and many more. Like the oaks, these native plants are adapted to fire, with annual lifestyles that rely on a healthy seed bank to return year after year, or underground storage like bulbs to survive above-ground events. Elsewhere in the park, perennial native bunchgrasses burned above ground, but survived as the vast majority of their biomass was safe underground. 

The Burned Oak Project shines a light on something both new and old. In the past couple of years, I’ve seen the phrase “new normal” tossed around in regard to wildfires in California. But clearly, it’s not new. Native plants have evolved with fire for tens of thousands of years. And in many cases that went hand in hand with native peoples’ tending of the wilderness: cultural burns to renew the land, invigorate resources, and prevent large, out-of-control fires from occurring. It isn’t the fires that are new; it’s the severity, brought on by fire suppression and development, and now exacerbated by climate change. 

Of the five valley oaks studied, four survived, resilient in the face of fire and drought because those are the conditions California oaks have adapted to. But their future resiliency, and ours, is less certain. I believe that this volunteer-driven study at Sycamore Grove Park is a great example of the intersection of community science, open spaces, and interpretation—motivated individuals and a willing organization putting value and expressing curiosity into our park, its natural processes, and its well-being. I also think that it connects to a bigger conversation about how local park agencies and community groups can combat and adapt to climate change by championing native ecosystems. Because even with this study, it isn’t fire that’s the problem. Climate change is.   

As mega-droughts, colossal wildfires, and extreme weather events are becoming the “new normal” for California, we have a unique opportunity to build resiliency and combat the source of these problems with our open spaces. Protecting open spaces with fire-adapted, drought-resistant, and carbon-sequestering native species can be a critical piece in how we take action at the community level.  

If you are interested in learning more, I wholeheartedly invite you to join the ranger staff and the “Oak Tree Team” volunteers on February 11th to walk the study site and experience for yourself the park’s recovery.