A team of native plant enthusiasts went searching for fire followers in Napa County this summer. Photo by Paul Woodward.

On a beautiful morning early this summer, Amy Patten led a team of native plant enthusiasts on a quest. They explored a 45-acre property, owned by Paul and Donna Woodward, in the hills west of Napa Valley. The land was scorched in the Atlas Fire last October, and the team had a mission to search for fire followers — rare plants that bloom only after a burn.

“One of the species I’m most excited to look for is the Napa Checkerbloom, a fire follower known from very few records,” Patten said. She had just seen this delicate pale pink flower in the Foote Botanical Preserve on Mount George, which is across the valley from the Woodwards’ land. The preserve, which also burned in the Atlas Fire, is one of the handful of places where the Napa Checkerbloom has been documented.

Patten manages the California Native Plant Society’s Rare Plant Treasure Hunt program, a citizen science effort to monitor rare plants statewide. California has about 6,500 varieties of native plants — the most of any state in the country — and about one third are found nowhere else in the world. Current priorities for CNPS’s Rare Plant Treasure Hunts include burn areas in the North Bay wine country.

“Fire followers have fleeting abundance,” said Heath Bartosh, a botanist at the Martinez-based consulting firm Nomad Ecology who studies fire followers in northern California. “There’s a big show for a couple of years and then they’re gone,” he added, explaining that their germination can be triggered by smoke and heat, as well as burn chemicals that wash into the soil during the first few rainy seasons after a fire.

After that, the seeds can lie under the soil surface for decades waiting for another fire to blaze through. This long dormancy is a perfect fit with the natural burn rhythm in the Bay Area, which is likewise slow. “The fire frequency here can be 30 to 120 years,” Bartosh said.

Patten’s expedition was the first time the Woodward’s property had been surveyed for fire followers, and no one knew if the Napa Checkerbloom grew there. If it did, Patten thought the ridge top would be the most likely spot, so that’s where the team headed. “It likes sunny, open areas,” she explained.

The ridge isn’t all that far from the Woodward’s house, which survived the fire, but the team took its time making the climb. They had too much to enjoy along the way. “We’re never a fast-moving group,” commented Wendy Born of Sebastopol.

The plant hunt began in the forest behind the Woodwards’ house. “Before the rains, this was charcoal,” said Paul Woodward. “It was all black.” The ground was still charred and crunched underfoot, but the forest understory was also alive with splashes of color.

The team fanned out from the trail, calling out their finds. They spotted the pink of wild roses; the bright yellow of fairy lanterns, which belong to the lily family; and the deep purple of another lily family member called Ithuriel’s spear. None of these are fire followers or even rare. But each is beautiful, and offered a sign of recovery from the burn that had blackened the land.

Further up the trail, the forest opened to a warm, sunny meadow with a spring-fed pond. Birds sang, cicadas buzzed, and a tiny frog hopped near the water’s edge. The pond was ringed first by cattails, then tiny pink flowers that looked like a sprinkling of stars, and finally daisy-like yellow flowers.

JoeJoe Clark of Calistoga identified the yellow flowers as sneezeweed, but the pink flowers sent the team to wildflower apps. Heads bent over their smartphones, they murmured over possibilities until settling on a likely match. Patten documented the find with photos and tucked a sprig into her backpack for formal identification later.

Verified field sightings help the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) inventory more than 2,300 species of rare plants. “CNPS takes the lead on tracking the status of plants, and we take the lead on mapping and managing the data,” said Kristi Lazar, lead botanist for the CDFW’s California Natural Diversity Data Base. Knowing the locations and abundance of rare plants can inform conservation efforts and land use decisions.

Lazar also values the citizen science aspect of CNPS Rare Plant Treasure Hunts. Our smoky mid-summer skies were a sobering reminder of the perils of wildfires. But from an ecological perspective, there can be a silver lining. “Including the public in surveys for fire followers can help educate people that fire is not always a devastating event, that some California native species thrive after a fire,” she said.

Back on the far side of the meadow, Patten and her team of plant hunters returned to the cool of the forest, making their way to the open ridge. They broke for lunch near the top, in the shade of a spreading oak that survived the fire. Donna Woodward shared photos of the burn and of the gradual recovery of the land, beginning with bright green sprigs poking through the black ground. The ridge was full of flowers, included a stunning stand of yellow mariposa lilies. The Woodwards hadn’t seen this many flowers here in years, if ever.

The ridge overlooked the Napa Valley, so Patten pointed out Mount George, where she saw the pink-flowered Napa Checkerbloom just the week before, on the eastern side. Inspired, the team started searching for this rare fire follower. Once again they fanned out from the trail, and once again their search turned up many flowers to name and enjoy. But not the Napa Checkerbloom.

Even so, spirits were high with camaraderie and the thrill of the hunt. “This is unsurveyed territory,” said Wendy Smit of Healdsburg. “If you don’t look, you won’t find rare flowers in new places.”

And Patten was just getting started. “We’ll have a lot more fire follower outings in Napa and Sonoma next spring,” she said.

Robin Meadows (usually) covers water for the Monitor.