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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

On Tuesday mornings at 6:30 sharp, come rain, sleet or fog, Justin Borton and a band of diehard Sonoma County trail runners meet at the base of Taylor Mountain and summit the steep 1300 elevation before most Sonoma County residents have even had their coffee. Started three years ago, the “Taylor Mountain Tuesdays” group has bonded over inclement weather, muscle cramps, fatigue and even, one day last October, the thick, acrid smoke that forced them to don air masks while they ran.

But they persevered through that painful day, and are not giving up on a new quest: to help raise funds for restoring the wildfire ravaged trails that offer them salvation.

Along with dozens of Sonoma County trail runners, they are heading to Tahoe this summer for a grueling 24-hour team race — at altitude — expecting to test their physical limits, enjoy some bonding time with friends and raise some cash for Sonoma County parks ravaged by October wildfires.

The July Ragnar Tahoe Trail relay is the centerpiece of the #SonomaStrong Parks Restoration Challenge, a fundraising campaign to benefit the Sonoma County Regional Parks Foundation and to help pay for wildfire restoration and resiliency projects undertaken in the wake of the devastating firestorm.

Organizer Borton hopes to raise $40,000 through givebacks from relay registration fees and direct fundraising begun in December.

Participation “is already beating my expectations, so I’m pretty stoked,” Borton said.

At least 70 people already have signed on to run the relay, while 100 or more total are expected eventually to register, he said. At least $45 from each individual registration fee goes toward the parks foundation, and the cut of fees designated for the foundation gets higher the more people participate, Borton said.

Among those training for the race is Santa Rosa resident Angela Sutherland, a veteran of the Tahoe trail run who is willing to revisit the punishing elevation gains and thin, high-altitude air despite still-fresh memories of just how hard it will be to run and breathe at the same time. Camp is at 7,000 feet, and “the run just goes up from there,” she said.

But contributing to the beloved open spaces that Sonoma County athletes flock to in all sorts of weather is a compelling motivation, Sutherland said.

“We all cried when the fires happened,” she said. “Not to be corny, but for runners, our parks are like church.”

The running group’s contributions are part of a larger, parks foundation effort to raise $250,000 for projects related to the autumn fires, Executive Director Melissa Kelley said.

About $105,000 has been raised so far, primarily through the annual year-end giving season, when residents proved themselves were even more generous than usual, Kelley said.

“People love their parks in this area, and I’m very grateful for that,” Kelley said. “We had a very strong response.”

Wildfires that ignited around the region during extremely high winds the night of Oct. 8 — including two of the six most destructive fires in California history — torched 137 square miles in Sonoma County.

The fires also burned through numerous public parks, including six regional parks: Hood Mountain, Shiloh Ranch, Sonoma Valley, Crane Canyon, Tolay Lake and Tom Shopflin Fields.

Hood Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve bears the worst scars, between intensely hot flames that left steep hillsides bare and fire suppression efforts that included deep ridge-line cuts created by bulldozers to stop the fire’s advance. Fire crews also made a stand at Shiloh Ranch, using bulldozers that left behind altered landscape and trails.

Elsewhere, flames melted culverts and burned wooden bridges, stairways, retaining walls, trail signs, picnic tables and benches. The infernos roared through meadows and forests, leaving scorched earth behind.

Nature’s brilliance means that much of the land will recover on its own, in time, said Deputy Parks Director Melanie Parker, natural resources manager.

But human intervention is necessary for infrastructure repairs, much of it already completed, and for certain plant restoration efforts, including the pygmy sergeant cypress forest at Hood Mountain, much of it plowed under by bulldozers. Bringing it back is expected to require painstaking reseeding of the suite of plants native to the area, Parker said.

Some of the park recovery work will be covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other emergency grants, but the parks foundation has identified a number of projects for which no government funding is expected, including some key plant restoration efforts, like the pygmy forest and the Pipevine Swallowtail habitat at Sonoma Valley Regional Park.

The foundation list also includes the purchase of a compact excavator to repair and rebuild trails; funding for animal grazing projects, shaded fuel breaks and a lightweight chipper to help reduce fuel loads in the event of future fires; and “Nature Heals” field trips and programming that could contribute to the well-being of a fire-traumatized public.

“In general, nature is resilient,” Parker said. “It’s really those places where the fire overlays with the fire suppression where we’re probably seeing the biggest needs, or where the fires overlays trails and roads.”

Borton, 40, said he feels the park damage personally after finding the love of running five years ago when he was 270 pounds and reshaping his life while he changed his physique. “I owe that all to our beautiful parks here, because that’s what keeps me going,” he said.

Members of the Taylor Mountain Tuesdays group and other local running groups that overlap it have formed many of the eight-member teams running Tahoe this July.

Borton welcomed about 30 of them to the familiar and formidable Santa Rosa hillside for a training run earlier this month — its verticality providing preparation appropriate to the elevation gains runner can expect to confront at Ragnar.

Borton said he hopes the run will bring attention to the park foundation’s needs, as well as raise the profile of the local running scene.

The Tahoe event runs July 19 to July 21 at Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort. Runners on eight-person teams will complete three mountainous trail loops totaling 16.7 miles during the race’s 24-hour timeframe, taking turns so someone is always on the course.

Go to sonomacountyparksfoundation.org/recovery/ to donate directly to the foundation.

For more information on the #SonomaStrong Parks Restoration Challenge, email SSPRC2018@gmail.com or go to the campaign Facebook page at facebook.com/SonomaStrongChallenge/.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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