As firefighters slowly gain an upper hand on the North Bay fires, first responders and officials are still reviewing the impacts. And the assessments aren’t focusing solely on lost human lives and immolated homes. Tens of thousands of acres of wildlands and interface areas were blackened, and the scars left on the landscape will remain for years, an omnipresent and sobering reminder of one of the greatest fire disasters in the modern history of the United States.
The impacts on the land are perhaps particularly distressing for Sonoma County residents. The county is not as heavily urbanized as many portions of Southern California, or even the communities clustered around San Francisco Bay. A pronounced green ethos prevails in Sonoma County, particularly in regard to the state and regional parks. Locals love them fiercely. It is a rare resident who doesn’t spend time in them: camping, fishing or diving at the coastal parks, hiking at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and Hood Mountain Regional Park, mountain biking at Trione-Annadel State Park, birding at the Laguna de Santa Rosa Trail, or simply strolling around Spring Lake Regional Park.
So concern about the fires’ impacts on the public parks is assured. But there’s some good news. First, as of this writing, most if not all of the critical infrastructure at the parks appears to have been protected by the diligence –– indeed, heroism –– of first responders and park staffers.
While Jack London State Historic Park has not burned, staffers have removed items of critical cultural significance and treated buildings with Thermo-Gel, a fire retardant compound; the park will remain closed until further notice. Historic structures at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, including the observatory, visitor center and a venerable barn, have escaped the flames, and were likewise treated with Thermo-Gel.
“There’s a lot of fire in Sugarloaf, and our concern remains high,” said Gloria Sandoval, the deputy director of public relations for the California Department of State Parks and Recreation. “The park is closed, but we’re hopeful we’ll be able to continue protecting our significant structures.”
Trione-Annadel State Park in Sonoma County, and Robert Lewis Stevenson State Park in Napa are closed because of active fires, Sandoval said.
“We don’t have exact figures yet, but a lot of Trione-Annadel has burned, and I know that at least half of Robert Lewis Stevenson has burned,” Sandoval said. The status of an employee residence near Robert Lewis Stevenson Park is not known, Sandoval said.
No fires are reported at Sonoma State Historic Park and Bothe-Napa Valley and Bale Grist Mill State Parks, but all have been closed. As with Sugarloaf and Jack London, items of cultural significance have been removed from Sonoma State Historic Park, Sandoval said. Buildings also have been treated with Thermo-Gel.
“The situation remains active, change has been and may remain rapid, and we haven’t had the opportunity for full assessments,” said Sandoval, explaining the closures. “Right now our focus remains on public safety and the safety of our employees.”
Sonoma County maintains more than 50 regional parks and public recreational properties, and some have been severely affected by the fires. Particularly hard hit are Shiloh Ranch Regional Park in Windsor and Hood Mountain Regional Park in Santa Rosa, said Melanie Parker, the natural resource manager, interim parks manager and deputy director for the Sonoma County Regional Parks Department.
Bill Myers, who regularly leads hikes at Hood Mountain Regional Park, reported that fires burned close to the historic William Hood Mansion, but that the structure was not harmed.
Fires also have burned some portions of Maxwell Farms Regional Park and Larson Park in Sonoma, and North Sonoma Mountain Park on Sonoma Mountain Road near Santa Rosa, said Parker.
“Fire went all the way across Sonoma Valley Regional Park in Glen Ellen, burning grassland and oak savanna,” said Parker. “Grasslands and understory also burned at Crane Creek Regional Park [in Santa Rosa].”
Despite extensive burning in Trione-Annadel State Park, Santa Rosa’s adjacent and highly popular Spring Lake Regional Park escaped the flames, Parker said. In all cases, Parker emphasized, park district staffers remain in emergency response mode. The parks will be reopened to the public once assessments are completed, roads are cleared of downed trees and other hazards, and general public safety is assured.
Parker emphasized the blazes are a disaster for human beings, but noted that fire is a critical component in the wildland ecology of much of California, including the North Bay. Periodic low-level fires keep woodland floors free of dangerous accumulations of fuels, return nutrients to the soil in the form of ashes, and control insect pests. Further, some tree and chaparral species are “serotinous” –– they require fire to release their seeds.
“These are fire-adapted landscapes,” Parker said. “From a human point of view, the North Bay fires are a catastrophe. But from the sole perspective of [the flora] they support, fire isn’t always damaging. It’s essential for forest health and resilience, but it all depends on the degree of intensity. Low-level fires can be beneficial, and we’ve seen some evidence of those kinds of burns in these recent incidents. My preliminary impression from a number of parks I’ve visited is that many of the fires were restricted to the forest floors and didn’t get into the crowns of the trees.”
John Roney, the manager for Sugarloaf State Park, also emphasized the dualism implicit in wildfire. There will be severe and negative localized impacts caused by the recent blazes, Roney observed, particularly when it comes to buildings, roads and other infrastructure.
“You also worry about erosion in areas that had hot fires, fires that burned down to mineral earth,” Roney said. “There were some big trees burning up here [in Sugarloaf], and that has us concerned. But we’ve also seen some creeping, mosaic-like burns through the grasslands and forests, and that’s at least a semi-positive development. We would’ve wanted that in any case [through controlled burns].”
Intrinsic to public use and enjoyment of Sonoma County parks is an extensive trail network. Over the past several years, maintenance of the county’s park trails has fallen almost exclusively to the Sonoma County Trails Council, a group of hard-working volunteers well-versed in the use of shovels, chainsaws and mattocks. The North Bay fires will assure plenty of work for the council’s crews in coming months and years, said Ken Wells, the organization’s executive director.
“We’re hoping most of the burning will be restricted to the grass and brush, that the forest canopies will have been left largely intact,” said Wells. “But no matter what, we expect lots of trees and limbs blown down by the winds. There’s going to be a tremendous amount of clean-up.”
Wells said crews will also have to check all the culverts that drain the trails because they tend to become clogged during fires. Plugged culverts can cause overflow onto the trails, ultimately eroding and destroying large sections of tread.
“Another thing we have to assess is any damage caused by heavy equipment digging fire line,” Wells said. “Bulldozer operators can’t worry about trails when they’re doing their jobs, of course, but there can be some serious impacts. A couple of years ago, heavy equipment really tore up the trails on Boggs Mountain during the Valley Fire. So we’ll have to get out there and rebuild and stabilize trails here wherever necessary.”
Large scale erosion could also be problematic, said Wells, but the technology exists for effective mitigation.
“We use wattles –– long, sausage-like rolls of netting filled with straw –– on any slopes where there might be a problem,” Wells said. “They’re really effective in stopping erosion, and I think you’re going to be seeing a lot of them out on the public lands this fall and winter.”
Wells is taking the long view on the fires. Like all county residents, he mourns the loss of human life and property destruction. But he’s hopeful the incident will help focus attention on the inevitability of wildfire and the necessary accommodations that must be made with it.
“I think these fires are going to constitute a really big exclamation point in our regional natural history,” Wells said. “People want to –– need to –– be outdoors, and our public parks are essential to our well-being. But we need to understand things like basic fire behavior, the necessity for controlled burns, and the way interface –– development in wild land areas –– affects public safety. Trail [maintenance] is a low priority in what’s going on [now], but if we can institute a rational controlled burn policy, then we won’t have to be so deeply involved in landscape rehabilitation when these things happen.”
WHERE TO GET SOME FRESH AIR NOW
Not all Sonoma County’s state and regional parks have been affected by the fires. In fact, most of the coastal parks are unscathed and open for business –– and as an added attraction, the air is fresh and clean.
Doran Beach Regional Park and Gualala Point Regional Park are available for both day use and camping. At Sonoma Coast State Park, which spans 17 miles of coastline from Bodega Head to the Vista Trail north of Jenner, sites are available at the Bodega Dunes and Wright’s Beach campgrounds. Campsites also are open at Woodside Campground at Salt Point State Park. In Mendocino County, campsites are available at MacKerricher State Park, Russian Gulch State Park and Van Damme State Park. Showers, restrooms, drinking water and trash bins are provided. (One exception: showers are not available at Wright’s Beach.) Campers should expect to bring all necessary equipment and food. No services or aid are available.