Recovering naturally

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Matthew Trumm shows a spot in Butte Creek Canyon where bamboo acted as a fire break.

On a recent morning, the ground still wet from overnight rain and the air chilled but still, Matthew Trumm surveyed a straightaway of Honey Run Road. The Camp Fire had whipped through this part of Butte Creek Canyonthree months earlier; some houses burned, others remained.

Trumm, a local designer certified in the ecological principles of permaculture, strode toward a property fronted by bamboo, where he’d met the owner previously. Several clusters stood tall—some rods green, some tan, some yellower; none singed. Back and to the side, heat-mangled metal lay piled amid the remnants of a home.

Through the canyon, throughout the Ridge and Concow areas, Trumm has seen such juxtapositions of survival and destruction. He can cite a reason in cases like this: Bamboo is naturally flame-resistant, so stalks planted in rows can act like a fire break. Indeed, a neighboring structure with a wood fence behind a wall of bamboo appeared untouched.

So, as residents in Butte County’s burn zones recover, he firmly believes in environmentally rooted solutions.

“It’s so important if we’re going to rebuild these areas that we give everybody all the tools that are available to them,” Trumm said.

Toward that end, he’s spearheading the Camp Fire Restoration Project, an effort to help private property owners and public agencies apply permaculture to restoring damaged lands.

Trumm—who’s based in Berry Creek with a business, Treetop Permaculture, in Oroville—has prominent environmentalists on board, including soil biologist Elaine Ingham. The Soil Foodweb School, an agricultural cooperative she pioneered, confirmed Ingham’s involvement, replying to the CN&R that she’s “definitely endorsing” the project and “giving some advice,” though “her direct involvement on the ground is pending.”

The endeavor itself is in its infancy. Ultimately, Trumm envisions experts such as Ingham and permaculturist Penny Livingston-Stark, of the Regenerative Design Institute in Bolinas, training local citizens and public officials—first in classrooms, then at a base camp built in a burn area. Organizers would deliver the resources required to restore the landscape in a sustainable way, such as seed, biochar, mushroom spawn and trees.

Construction and supplies cost money, of course. The Camp Fire Restoration Project launched a GoFundMe campaign Nov. 13, five days after the fire, to raise $100,000; as of early February, 53 people had contributed a total of $3,225. Nonetheless, Trumm and his group have embarked on phase one: setting up three staging areas for deploying restoration materials and helping residents on properties.

The staging areas, each around a quarter acre, are in Butte Creek Canyon, Paradise and the Concow/Yankee Hill area. Teams currently are distributing waddles (for erosion-control fencing), straw bales (gardening) and wood chips (ground cover); Trumm hopes the offerings expand when supplies get replenished.

“Creating the model is the most important thing with all this,” he said. “I tell everyone, ‘We’re late to the party.’ We’re coming in on the back end—we’re scrambling to try to get things done here….

“We’re basically calling for this area to be a hub, a melting pot, for all of the world’s technologies in sustainable design and ways to think about rebuilding in a way where we’re rebuilding with nature and the climatic realities we have.”

Permaculture centers on designing with ecosystems in mind. Practitioners—another locally is Rosa Maicas, founder of the Permafunk Institute in Chico—incorporate features that mimic natural systems. (See “Integrated living,” Greenways, March 15, 2015.)

Trumm pointed to fire safety, food security, water supply and climate as four major considerations in planning a wildfire rebuild. In permaculture design, those translate to—among other things—natural fire breaks, plant selection, irrigation and shade.

Trumm’s interest transcends land restoration, even if that’s a considerable focus of the Camp Fire Restoration Project. He’s invited Miguel Elliott from Living Earth Structures in Petaluma, specializing in cob and adobe construction, to visit and discuss ideas for the local rebuild. Cob building combines clay and straw into a plaster that becomes a ceramic when exposed to high heat.

“I would welcome a fire for one of my houses,” Elliott said by phone. “Some people intentionally burn their [cob] homes to make them stronger.”

Coating wood with the earthen material is another option for fire resistance. Elliott plans to demonstrate his techniques locally at a workshop in August. For this and other sessions, Trumm hopes to secure classroom space at Butte College.

“Our biggest thing,” Trumm said, “[is] we’re looking at alternative, sustainable design models for homes.”

Whatever the choice, he hopes it’s made with ecology in mind. Trumm has a detailed explanation of the cause of California’s wildfire epidemic: Boiled down, it’s that we’ve separated animals—fuel-reducing grazers, but also ourselves—from traditional interactions with the wild environment.

“We’ve been able to tidy up the world to a point where we don’t feel [as if] we’re a part of nature,” he said. “Unfortunately, we stay so disconnected most of our lives that we live in that comfort zone, we become compartmentalized from it.

“But it’s events like this that wake us up, [show] that nature is right there and if we don’t start thinking about how to design ourselves into nature, she’s going to come with a fury.”

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