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Sugarloaf Ridge State Park already showing signs of new life after October fires

Participants take part in a fire recovery hike at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018 in Kenwood, California. (BETH SCHLANKER/The Press Democrat)

KEVIN FIXLER,

One has only to look to the native coyote bush to see the flora are returning and the ecological cycle is already underway after the wildfires at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.

“It’s sort of the poor stepchild of every area where it grows, because it’s so common and it seems kind of boring,” said Carolyn Greene, a longtime certified California Naturalist, pointing out new sprouts at the shrub’s base. “But it’s one of the pioneer plants, generally, in environments that comes in first. A week ago there wasn’t new growth on that stem, so that’s happening.

“We will see some ‘was plant,’” she said, referring to those that died in last October’s destructive fires, “but this is definitely an ‘is plant.’ ”

In a sign of the region’s recovery, the park in Kenwood reopened Thursday for the first time in nearly four months, welcoming heavy foot traffic to catch first glimpses of the damage done. Some sections of the regional fixture known for its rolling hills and serene, tree-lined meadows, saw flames 70 feet tall that burned as hot as 1,200 degrees and scorched 80 percent of the park’s total landscape.

Portions of the well-traversed public lands, established in 1962, remain closed while staff and volunteers continue repairing trails, relaying rebar and rebuilding wooden retaining walls to prevent soil erosion. Of its 16 trails, only 10 are presently open because of the countless hours invested to get them ready, with two of them open to mountain bikes.

Half of the park’s campsites will also be restored Feb. 15, and with them the normal hours of operation returned to 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. instead of the current abbreviated hours of 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The rest of the campgrounds are scheduled to open April 15.

On Sunday’s sun-splashed morning, Greene led a group of about two dozen participants on a park-hosted fire recovery walk following the fire. Up the gradual incline of Lower Bald Mountain Trail, visitors can see some of area’s most visible devastation and how it’s recovering, as well as discuss what it might mean for its future.

“The effect on the wildland is 100 percent good,” Greene said. “Maybe not today or tomorrow or next year, but in the medium and long range the fire was good for the natural world.”

The scent of freshly blooming bay trees at the turn of another leaf-coated dirt switchback guides visitors past pastures of charred trunks. Meanwhile, dead branches of once thick, lush toyon shrubs reaching out from blackened, previously concealed earth act as reminders of the recent incineration of the delicate chaparral habitat.

“What we just walked up, that is like ‘Oh my God,’” said Nancy Cherniss, 66, a Sonoma resident. “That is very, very dramatic. I know that trail and (before) you couldn’t see out like you could today.”

Regeneration has begun, however. The cycle of life and benefits of fire are visible even to the untrained eye.

Sprigs of growth can now be spotted in the canopies of coast live oak and madrone trees, as well as at the base of some of the fallen Douglas firs. Indigenous plants and grasses, which have evolved with fire and have stronger, deeper root systems, survived while their non-native brethren were swept up and cleared out in the inferno.

“Actually, I thought it was going to be worse,” said Kathy Schultz, 71, of Oakmont. “I guess I think that when there’s going to be a fire … just everything is going to be gone. But it isn’t that way.”

Without the typical rainfall so far this winter, though, some are already wondering what kind of impact that might have on the park’s regeneration process. And with the threat of the next big blaze always just a season away as wildfire conditions expand by the year, understanding how forests and grasslands repopulate — and how quickly — will be critical for halting the same levels of loss in the future.

“We’re learning a lot from this fire,” said Greene. “That’s one of the exciting things about the fire — we’re all citizen-scientists and going to learn so much. There will be so many more questions.”