Drought, wildfire and erosion compel a California community to heal the soil

In parts of California, the historic drought is creating a new breed of wildfire that burns so hot that the scorched soil left behind erodes instead of reseeds, says Lisa Morehouse, who reported on one farming community’s efforts to revive its land after last year’s 70,000-acre Butte Fire. The story was co-produced by FERN and KQED’s The California Report.

When the Butte Fire ran through Calaveras County in the Gold Country foothills last September, it destroyed ranches, vineyards, olive groves and apiaries. But unlike other wildfires, this one didn’t lead to a new generation of grass growth. “Usually there’s a natural seed bank, which lives in the soil and then germinates [after a wildfire]. But the dry conditions created by four years of drought, the worst in recent history, meant the Butte Fire burned so fast and so hot it sterilized the soil,” writes Morehouse. The area’s red clay soil essentially baked to a slick glaze under the ground.

“Just like your coffee mug in the morning doesn’t let all that coffee out of the mug, that glaze isn’t letting water from the surface down into the aquifer, into the water table,” farmer and beekeeper Sean Kriletich told Morehouse. Instead, when the rains came this winter, black ash and red clay turned the Calaveras and Mokelumne rivers — the main local sources for drinking water and irrigation– the color of “chocolate milk.”

The USDA helps fight fires, but the agency rarely has funds for recovery efforts once the blaze is put out. In Calaveras’ case, a local ag group called CalaverasGROWN is leading efforts to repair the land, largely by spreading straw mulch over the burned areas, since “straw contains seeds, retains moisture and lowers soil temperature. It should green up these hills and help keep topsoil in place,” says Morehouse. The straw campaign is funded by private donations and money from the city of Stockton, which is nervous that ash-contaminated runoff could reach it downstream. No one expects CalaverasGrown’s 60 volunteers to cover all 70,000 burned acres. Yet, what they can reach is healing more than the soil. It’s helping farmers and ranchers who lost so much to move forward.

Morehouse covered this story as part of a larger, ongoing series, called California Foodways. FERN’s Kristina Johnson recently spoke with her to learn more about her adventures finding food stories in every county in California. Read the Q&A here.