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In the initial hours of the devastating wine country fires of 2017, nearly 85 percent of the Pepperwood Preserve’s 3,200 acres of grassland, forest, wetlands and numerous structures had burned. But just a few miles away, Michelle Halbur, an ecologist who has worked at the preserve since 2011, and her husband, Dave, woke at 2 a.m., not from the fires, but instead by their toddler’s cries.

“Rowan, our son, woke from a nightmare, and my husband, Dave, had gone in to help him settle down; we didn’t smell smoke or hear anything at that point,” Halbur said. “So we went back to sleep, but we think they’d already perished by then.”

What the Halburs didn’t know at the time was that the neighborhood near Santa Rosa’s Cardinal Newman High School had been burned to the ground and had taken the lives of Dave’s 80-year-old parents.

“Dave spent Monday morning going from shelter to shelter looking for them,” Halbur said. “As the day wore on, he came back home with tears in his eyes. He was starting to realize what must have happened.”

I sat stunned, listening to Halbur as she recounted her story. We were touring the preserve a few weeks after the fires and just after a light rain had fallen, bringing with it some freshly sprouted green grasses that appeared in stark contrast to the charred remains of many blackened trees and shrubs.

“With the help and support of family, friends and our community, I find strength knowing that the Pepperwood Preserve mission remains intact,” she said.

I had come to learn more about what the preserve was doing and why ecologists seemed excited by the work going on there. What I was not prepared for was the strength and courage of nearly everyone I met, especially when I heard stories like Halbur’s.

What I came to learn was the history and mission of the preserve and why it provided a unique opportunity to study what was one of the most disastrous fires in the history of California.

Pepperwood, a model preserve

There are likely no other locations positioned or staffed to understand the impact of the recent fires on the local environment better than Pepperwood. Located between Calistoga and Santa Rosa in the Mayacamas Mountains that form a bucolic border between Sonoma and Napa counties, the preserve was in the direct path of the Tubbs Fire.

The brainchild of Healdsburg residents Jane Dwight and her husband, Herb, the former CEO of Santa Rosa’s Optical Coating Laboratory, Pepperwood has been collecting data, educating locals and providing scientists with an opportunity to study the effects of natural phenomena, such as fire and drought. But it is more, too.

“Jane and I both love nature and believe that people are happier when they spend time and can have space to appreciate the natural world, and so that was really why we started down this path,” Dwight said.

The Dwights had always been enamored with wilderness, Herb having hiked “most” of the Sierra Mountains with his father growing up and Jane skiing and hiking in Colorado, where she went to school.

But Herb was not just a back-to-the-lander; he was the co-founder of “the first” laser company, Spectra-Physics in the early 1960s. Even when they were in their high-tech world of lasers, the Dwights always kept their appreciation for ecology, and when a large parcel of land became available in the wine country mountains they jumped at the chance to fulfill a dream.

“The land was put on the market in 1996 for all comers — developers and the like — but when my wife and I hiked the site we came to understand that such a wonderful expanse of land should be preserved and shared,” he said.

They found that the land had originally been gifted to the California Academy of Sciences in 1979 by Nancy and Kenneth Bechtel, who had, by the late 1960s, created one of the world’s largest construction companies. Twenty years later, the California Academy of Sciences came to view the site as a, “non-earning asset and so decided to market it,” Dwight said.

The Dwights made an offer that was originally accepted. But because of the complexity of the deal and because of competing interests between state and local governments, the final sale was not completed until 2005.

“By then the price had doubled, but our fortunes had improved, too, so we were able to make the purchase,” Dwight said. “Since then we’ve transferred ownership of the preserve into a public foundation as a stand-alone 501 c (3).”

The Dwight Center for Conservation Science

In the intervening years, the Pepperwood Preserve has developed a vision for the property that is explained on their website as being, “…a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation and education, … a living laboratory where researchers and partners from some of our nation’s finest institutions are developing solutions to adapt to climate change and drought, maintain clean air and water, and effectively enhance and protect limited natural resources today and into the future. And with programs beginning in first grade and extending through adulthood, Pepperwood is at the forefront of conservation education, creating the next generation of environmental stewards.”

As part of that mission, the Dwights funded the completion of a state-of-the-art facility, a $9 million, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) -certified, 9,400-square-foot solar-powered center for environmental research and education. The building, made mostly of potash cement (with a lower carbon footprint than normal concrete) houses scientists and staff members and serves as a place where science and the community come together to solve today’s critical environmental challenges.

“Jane and I may have provided the stage, but it is really Lisa and her team that are making this dream into reality,” Dwight said.

He was referring to Lisa Micheli, Ph.D., president and CEO of the preserve since 2009.

“I came here because of the opportunity to advance conservation through science,” Micheli said. “It’s a testament to the vision and persistence of Herb and Jane and all the many others that were involved to create a living laboratory that is helping to advance the conservation of nature in our area, while we are building communities through bringing science to everyone through our collaboration with local schools, including junior colleges, universities and K-12 education in both Napa and Sonoma counties.”

Presently, Micheli is leading her team and a collection of outside scientists to learn as much from the fire’s footprint as possible, using high-tech equipment and good old-fashioned on-the-ground fieldwork.

“We are passionate about our long-term data collection program here at the preserve, which is a less visible aspect of Pepperwood to the community,” she said. “People are very familiar with our kids’ programs, education programs, and they kind of know we do science, but for me, as a scientist, these long-term records — they’re just gold in science because they allow for more accurate computer modeling, but computer modeling is only as good as the data sets we have to feed them.”

Refining computer models to help inform future planning.

The preserve has 24 wildlife cameras and more than 200 data-collection stations that record everything from soil, water and air temperatures to stream turbidity that will help monitor post-fire erosion.

“We have a unique opportunity to take all the data from what we’ve been collecting over the years and watch, measure, analyze as the environment recovers from the fires — this is truly an enormous opportunity,” Micheli said. “It will take a lot of work, and many of our remote sensing data stations are still being assessed to determine how they were affected by the fires, but we’ll be back up and running full speed soon and collecting data as we go.”

Beyond the return of the environment — animals and plants — Dwight Center itself, the building, is also being looked at as a potential model.

“Tragically we lost a few structures on the site, but the center came out in really good shape,” Halbur said. “It’s built in such a way — made of noncombustible material, nestled into the hill with gaps between the structure and the earth — that it appears the fire had no way inside and nothing to burn. It’s pretty amazing.”

She paused and gently patted her round belly, weeks away from giving birth to her second child.

“We’ve seen deer, coyotes, spiders, amphibians and quail. Our grasses are already coming back and even a few rare plants— like the redwood lily, that only grows after major fires. As the weeks go by and the rains sprinkle the earth, we’re seeing life re-emerge and recover.”