Hannah Beausang, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
When Natalie Portis first stepped onto her property in Sonoma nearly 20 years ago, she was immediately enchanted by the verdant natural landscape and the stately oak trees.
Portis’ wooded oasis was among the thousands of acres of forests and oak-studded landscapes that burned in the October 2017 Nuns fire, which claimed her home and an estimated 700 trees on her 10-acre Castle Road property.
“It still feels surreal,” Portis, 59, said. “It was devastating to go back there and see the singed trees. I just remember being there and feeling the grief and toll of such loss.”
She’s rebuilding her home and plans to move in this summer. It’s been a “painful” process, but a bright spot came last month as she planted 21 oak tree seedlings sprouted from acorns collected by local volunteers in the weeks after the devastating wildfires two years ago in Sonoma County.
“It was very playful and very sweet, and it put a huge smile on my face,” she said of planting the young coast live oaks on her property with help from members of the California Native Plant Society. “I feel like I’m going to get back home.”
Oak trees have long defined the bucolic landscapes of Sonoma County and played a critical role in shaping its natural habitat. Recognizing the need to preserve and proliferate the native species after the fires, the California Native Plant Society and its local Milo Baker chapter — named after the noted Santa Rosa botanist — quickly launched efforts in 2017 to harvest acorns from areas near burn zones in the county and surrounding communities.
“Oaks are really the powerhouses of our ecosystem here in California when it comes to native plants,” said Liv O’Keeffe, senior director of communication and engagement for the environmental nonprofit society. “A single oak can literally support hundreds of insects, pollinators, birds, critters and other plant species. Having those oaks in place keeps an ecosystem intact.”