Restoring Oak Trees after the Sonoma County Wildfires

Fire Scorched Oak Tree in Glen Ellen. ©Aleta Parseghian

Starting a huge environmental restoration in the aftermath of the Wine Country wildfires, more than 1,000 volunteers are gathering acorns to grow new oak trees for fire-damaged areas. Environmentalists spearheading the emergency oak brigade said so many people signed up to collect, box, and mail in acorns from the North Bay that it briefly crashed the server of the California Native Plant Society over the weekend.

The project could become one of California’s biggest tree plantings after a big wildfire, said Dan Gluesenkamp, executive director of the California Native Plant Society, a nonprofit coordinating many conservation groups in the effort. “We’ve had an amazing outpouring of support from people who want to do something positive after these very destructive fires,” Gluesenkamp said Wednesday. “There is a huge crop of acorns this year, but the volunteers need to move fast to collect them before they dry out and die.”

The restoration could lead to the “re-oaking” of burned oaks on private property and parks, but also other areas where native oaks were removed or crowded out years or decades ago.

Many oak trees survived the wildfires because they are a hearty, native hardwood species with thick bark adapted to survive droughts and wildfires that have swept over California’s wildlands for thousands of years. But intense heat from the wildfires destroyed some oaks. And in other fire areas, there is potential to re-establish oaks, especially in areas near the urban edge where developments and wildlands blend together, Glusenkamp said.

To take part, volunteers must sign up in advance at Adopt an Oak at http://www.cnps.org/cnps/conservation/acorns/ and follow protocols for collecting and packaging the acorns, and submitting a sample of genetic material from a tree limb. Experts sort out healthy and dead acorns. The good acorns are treated with disinfectant to kill diseases such as sudden death Oak syndrome that has killed and weakened many trees, including many in the Wine Country wildfire areas. Many of the young trees will be raised in greenhouse conditions, and then provided to parks or private landowners who want them.

The conservation groups will work with property owners to help them decide where it is appropriate to plant oaks. Program organizers say they will focus more on private property owners, rather than large public agencies, which already have access to tree experts and land managers.

While it’s too early to know how many oak trees will be raised, Gluesenkamp said it could run into the hundreds of thousands if enough volunteers join in. “We don’t really know yet,” he said, adding that the first boxes with acorns have been arriving this week in the plant society’s offices in Sacramento.

The restoration program focuses on collecting acorns from Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties for trees to be planted in those areas. This practice protects the genes of trees that have adapted in the area. “Oaks are like a book with DNA that reflects how they evolved,” Gluesenkamp said. The plant society, however, will accept acorns from people in other areas who want new oaks in their counties.

After the 1991 Oakland hills fire, the California Oaks Foundation collected acorns used to rear new oak trees, said Angela Moskow, an information manager at the California Oaks Program at the California Wildlife Foundation. “Oak trees have a very important environmental value,” Moskow said.

Conservationists advise property owners in fire-damaged areas not to automatically remove all oak trees with some burn damage. Sometimes, oaks with singed branches or trees will recover and live long lives, Glusenkamp said.

Why do oaks need our help?

Even before the fires, oaks needed help. Populations have been in decline with seedlings and young trees nearly absent. The number of oaks killed by the fires is not known, but it is clear that many have died. We have an opportunity to act now.

Did you know?

  • Our wine country oaks support an estimated 350 types of animals!
  • Oaks fight global warming. Recent studies show that an oak tree’s heavy wood stores more carbon than most other trees.
  • Oaks improve property value. One real estate study found an increased value of $30k for a home with mature oaks.

In October, more than 30,000 acres of oak habitat burned in the devastating North Bay fires, and additional trees were lost to bulldozers or other fire response actions. In the weeks after the fires, our community came together in an ambitious effort to Re-Oak Wine Country. Thousands of neighbors joined in to collect acorns and submit data sheets to CNPS.

Time to plant!

After weeks of sorting and cleaning the acorns, they are ready to be planted. Now, you can help by Adopting an Oak (or many for that matter)! It’s easy:

  1. Sign up using the form below
  2. CNPS will provide the information (and the acorns!) for planting and growing success
  3. You plant and care for your seedlings!
  4. If you can’t Adopt an Oak but would like to stay in touch, please use this form to sign up for updates. We will try to connect property owners with volunteers in their area.

Yes, I’d like to Adopt an Oak!

Please complete the following information so we can match you with Acorns from a Mother Tree in your area. You may want to reference our Planting Native Oaks Outside (PDF) and Planting Native Oaks Indoors (PDF) guides to help you complete this form.

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