In the wake of the flames: what should I do now?

Wildfires affected 245,000 acres in Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino Counties in October 2017. Landowners and residents are returning to their homes to begin the process of recovery and many are wondering “what should I do now?”. 


Safety is the most critical concern

  • Drive slowly on impacted roads and check for downed trees, falling material, and damaged utilities near roadways.
  • Structures that have burned can be highly toxic. Don’t handle ashes without prior testing and protective gear. First, consult with experts and your county officials.
  • Assess the outside of your property for smoldering embers, including pump houses and other structures. Check trees for loose limbs or other hazards.
  • Examine gas and electrical meters, if damaged, do not turn on or attempt to repair.
  • Check the inside of your structures including the attic for embers. Check phone lines and leave appliances unplugged until after power returns.
  • If you see white ash, assume hot materials and potential for hazardous holes.

For more detailed information on returning to your property, and to find out what to do if you encounter hazardous conditions, visit this webpage hosted by the County of Sonoma.


Watershed protection

  • If possible, clean burned sites before rains carry hazardous materials into storm drains and waterways.
  • Use fallen branches, sandbags, small berms, native plants or other natural features to slow runoff into creeks. Soil erosion rates are typically highest in the first year post-fire.
  • Control erosion on fire breaks and repair any damage to contours and slope that would channel excess runoff.
  • Evaluate risk for increased flooding than may result in additional road damage, plugged culverts, or home damage.
  • Use mulching cautiously so as not to introduce invasive weeds. Do not spread straw or hay. Use only seed-free material, such as chipper material from known source or certified weed-free straw or rice straw. Even material sold as weed-free is often contaminated.


Vegetation recovery

  • Work with an ecologist or arborist assess the damage to vegetation and characterize fire severity. Understanding the range of impacts on your property can help you decide when and where to protect land from further impacts.
  • Fire releases the native seeds stored in the soil. Most trees and shrubs will recover on their own, and the land’s existing seed bank will push new growth in the winter. It is not recommended to re-seed a large burned area, not even with native seeds. If you do use some seed, use only native perennials.
  • Oaks are adapted to survive periodic burning. Low intensity or moderate fires can scorch all leaves and trees may appear dead, however, many of these oaks will sprout leaves the following spring. If not hazardous, it is generally good practice to leave oaks at least year before determining mortality.
  • These areas have recovered from wildfires many times. In most cases, after debris and ash are removed from a burn site, the land will recover without direct intervention – it just needs time.


Steps landowners can take to improve habitat for wildlife

  • Build and install nest boxes for native birds.
  • Retain some large dead and down woody material for amphibians and reptiles
  • Retain dead trees for cavity nesters (as long as doesn’t pose hazard).
  • Provide clean water in shallow containers for animals moving through landscape.
  • Add native plants to landscape.

Note: Information on this page is being updated as frequently as possible.  Points may not apply to all sites. Information sources include Sonoma Ecology Center, North Bay Climate Adaptation Initiative, Las Pilitas Nursery, Sonoma County, Napa County RCD, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Fire in California’s Oak Woodlands.


  1. Cris Cochran says:

    Where can I purchase native shrubs (to eastern slopes of Napa County) which were burned such as coyote bush, sticky monkey flower, scrub oaks?

    • Tom Greco says:

      Hi Cris, thank you for reaching out! The Napa Valley Chapter of the California Native Plant Society has a great list of native plant nurseries here on their website. We like California Flora Nursery in Fulton, CA—it’s right down the road from us—but there may be one closer to Napa that suits your needs.

      Our Preserve Ecologist also notes that the species you mentioned can resprout after fire, and recommends watching for recovery before disturbing the soil.

  2. Linda McJannet says:

    Thanks for enlightening your readers–even those far away from the devastation. It helps us understand not only what NoCal is going through, but the natural world. And we all need that!

Post a comment

Traducir »