The North Bay wildfires tore through neighborhoods and hills last fall. More than 100,000 acres of wilderness in Napa and Sonoma counties were destroyed, including thousands of oak trees.
The California Native Plant Society took action. While they have been collecting acorns for decades, last fall they asked California residents to collect their acorns for oak restoration.
Over 600 people registered online the first weekend alone. So many people answered their call that the email server crashed.
“When the fires happened ... we saw an emerging need to do more restoration,” said Dan Gluesenkamp, executive director at the plant society.
The plant society’s own chapter leaders lost their homes in the fires, and it destroyed nature preserves that Gluesenkamp himself had worked on for 10 years.
“It was a bit of a shock,” he said. “But it’s been really inspiring how the rest of society has come together to help everyone.”
Coincidentally, the relentless wildfires occurred the same year that the region’s oaks witnessed an incredible bumper acorn crop — “the likes of which God has never seen,” Gluesenkamp said.
Rick Robison was one of many California residents who called the California Native Plant Society to offer his acorns. His oak tree is one of the original oaks in Antioch, California. It’s grown to be so large, it shades his home. Beginning in August, thousands of acorns hit fall onto his roof, his truck, and the boat he stores outside.
“We bought this place 25 years ago,” Robison said. “When I saw this tree, I said I got to have this spot right there. My wife said that it’s going to be messy, but I told her it’s going to be worth it. Acorns every year, squirrels are happy, birds are happy, and my wife is happy because I keep the yard pretty clean.”
Robison put many miles on his push broom sweeping his yard. This past fall, he filled 11 burlap sacks with acorns after he read an article in his local newspaper about the plant society’s mission to re-oak California.
His acorns were sent to Gluesenkamp in Sacramento, where they were processed and recorded. Volunteers ensured that acorns returned to their native regions: acorns from Antioch are re-planted in Antioch, and acorns from Sonoma are re-planted in Sonoma.
“A coast live oak that is growing in Antioch will have significant genetic differences than one growing on the coast side near Santa Rosa,” Betty Young said.
She spent 30 years growing native plants for habitat restoration, and records acorns in Sonoma County as a volunteer for the California Native Plant Society.
Young, who was forced to evacuate her home during the wildfires last year, ensured that acorns were collected, rinsed with a weak bleach solution to kill pathogens, and stored in a Santa Rosa Junior College refrigerator. They are then provided to land management agencies and landowners whose properties burned during the fires.
Sonoma County landowners have learned how resilient the oak landscape is.
“We can see how nature restores itself,” Gluesenkamp said. “And we can see how we also can recover our houses that we have lost, our broken neighborhoods. In the scheme of things, we are kind of small, and there is something bigger out there that is 3.5 million years old. There is a living planet that can give us a perspective that is really healing at this time.”