Sonoma County wildlife show amazing recovery after wildfires


“I had no idea what to expect,” Steven Hammerich says, as he scans through wildlife images on his computer at Pepperwood Preserve.At the end of September and early October, the scene looks much like any other fall in Sonoma County. You see a lone bobcat on the prowl the night of Sept. 28. A deer wanders by on Oct. 2. A coyote stands alert on Oct. 7.

And then, at 1:57 a.m. Oct. 8, as the Tubbs fire roared through Pepperwood on its way from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, the motion-activated field camera captures frame after frame filled with a sea of flames and red-hot tracers of flying embers. A Douglas fir ignites and the temperature shoots up to 133 degrees by 2:15 a.m.

By the end, more than 85 percent of Pepperwood’s 3,200 acres — home to 900 species of plants and animals — would burn, mostly at a low to moderate intensity. By the time Hammerich and the rest of the Pepperwood staff returned several weeks later, many field cameras had completely melted. But in other cameras the storage cards survived, allowing them to piece together a rare narrative of wildlife survival.

“It really is like detective work,” says Hammerich, Pepperwood’s resident camera tech, as he cues up footage from the same E5 camera that captured the previous images before and during the fire.

Two days after the fire, the first sign of wildlife appears: The blurry head of a buck at 3:22 in the afternoon. Two days after that, a jackrabbit bounds by at 12:44 a.m. On Oct. 15, a deer appears at daybreak. And like that, in photo after photo, a coyote, a squirrel, more deer and another jackrabbit return. Other cameras on the preserve capture mountain lions on Oct. 13 and 16, a black bear on Nov. 6 and Nov. 24 and a bobcat on Nov. 8.

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