Subscribe

Armstrong Redwoods could reopen by Memorial Day

The forests in Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve and the adjacent Austin Creek State Recreation Area have begun their slow, silent recovery from last year’s extensive wildfires. But within their borders there’s also a constant buzz of human activity.

For now, the yellow metal gate at the entrance to both parks remains firmly closed, but throughout the parks, small teams are removing hazards, cutting fallen logs with chain saws, clearing debris and rebuilding fire-damaged facilities.

The 5,700 acres of the Austin Creek parcel won't be open any time soon — in places the burned ridges resemble a moonscape, with hazards from falling trees and branches.

But there is good news for hikers and fans of the ancient grove in Armstrong. Although the fire burned its way down the valley slopes, the massive old-growth trees on the valley floor survived, thanks to fire crews who stood their ground. And the trails there could be open to the public by Memorial Day, according to Michele Luna, Executive Director of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods.

The nonprofit group operates Armstrong under a multiyear agreement with California State Parks. Their staff and volunteers have been hard at work with State Parks and other partners to inspect and repair essential facilities.

Based on public calls and emails, Luna said, reopening can’t happen soon enough. Armstrong’s groves are a popular destination with both locals and tourists, a premiere spot to wander and experience the centuries-old, towering giants in their native habitat.

Some of those ancient redwoods still have blackened and hollowed trunks, damage from previous fires, especially the last conflagration here, in 1923. That fire, unlike the wildfire last year, raged through the grove. Today, the scars offer clear evidence of just how well-equipped the species is to survive and recover from flames.

Recovery

After millions of years of evolving in California’s fire-prone environment, the redwoods have developed elegant ways of survival, which is why they still grow here today.

Up on the ridges surrounding the valley grove and deep in the wild reaches of the park, some redwoods did not escape last fall’s monthslong wildfire. At the Bullfrog Pond campground, entire stands of redwoods are now just charcoal-black trunks on bare soil.

Near one campsite, Scott Lawyer, Stewards’ field operations manager, points up to the tree tops. Many of the worst-burned trees are already furry with fresh green shoots. Though fire may climb up and through their branches, redwood trees can rapidly push out new growth through the singed bark.

Unlike most plants and trees, redwoods also have multiple ways of reproducing. Fire can burn and smolder among tree roots for months and weaken the tree’s grip on the ground, making it vulnerable to wind or collapse, Lawyer said. When that happens, new trees may sprout around the old stump, wherever roots have survived. In the wild, this often creates circles of new trees, or fairy rings. Redwoods also can grow from fallen logs. Redwood seeds, buried under spongy layers of dropped leaves, or duff, can sprout in the wake of a fire, nourished by the ash, and grow into the new opening in the canopy toward sunlight.

Restoration work

While many of the redwood trees will rebound in time on their own, restoring the park for human visitors is not so automatic and requires planning, labor and resources.

“Last year’s fire was a double whammy,” Luna said. In addition to the wildfire’s impacts, when the park and campground closed, the visitor revenues they depend on to operate ground to a halt.

“Bullfrog Campground, where we sell firewood, is one of our main sources of revenue, next to day use fees. We get a percentage of that revenue to cover some of our work at Armstrong.”

Until the park is reopened, Stewards will continue to depend on donations from the public and memberships.

“We’ve had wonderful public support to help us through and to start repairs and rebuilding,” Luna said. “We’ve grown from 600 to 900 members since the fire.” The group is now raising funds for the next round of work.

“We’re still facing costs to repair and refurbish the burned facilities at the campground, remove and process unsafe trees, clear debris, repair fencing, trails and signs,” she said.

A burning log fell on and destroyed a bathroom at the campground, and campground tables as well as trail fencing, signage and the trails themselves were damaged. A park employee’s house also was destroyed in the fire.They are still surveying hazardous slopes, trail and road conditions, as well as damage to the park’s underground water systems.

Past and future threats

Part of their work now will be to ensure the park is better prepared to meet the challenges of the years ahead, which will most certainly include new fires.

According to tree ring studies by scientists, on average, California’s redwood forests have historically burned once every 9 to 25 years.

That fact is very much on the mind of Brendan O'Neil, the senior environmental scientist with the California State Parks’ Sonoma Mendocino Coast District. He and three other full time staff are responsible for managing all of the natural resources in Armstrong and 23 other parks, totaling more than 50,000 acres west of Highway 101.

Part of that challenge is dealing with the effects of a legacy that suppressed natural fires in the West for nearly 100 years, O’Neil said. As a result, California wildlands are stacked with enormous fuel loads, stands of dead and diseased trees, and encroaching species like Douglas fir that burn incredibly fast and hot.

Decades of accumulated brush and downed wood, which normally would have been recycled by low-intensity fires, is now in place to drive crown-topping, highly destructive conflagrations.

“We were lucky last year,” O’Neil said. “For the first three or four days of the fire we had 100-degree temps and very low humidity. But the fire’s behavior varied by location and time, which affected its impact. There were some high-intensity spots, but by and large it was a moderate- to low-intensity fire; not wind-driven here as it was in other areas to the east.”

The wind-driven fire entered Austin from the northeast and burned there for weeks before working its way south to the Armstrong valley, right up to the perimeter trail. The high-intensity fire was contained almost entirely to the Austin Creek area, especially on the ridges.

From O’Neil’s perspective, much of the landscape today is out of balance. Regular fires, he said, are essential to the health of the forest. They open holes in the canopy, allowing sunlight to reach seeds and seedlings which will grow into the next generation of trees. Without fire, there’s a noticeable lack of young trees, and that does not bode well for the future.

“Many species have also evolved to live with fire, or actually need fire to regenerate,” he said. California’s native oak species, which are adapted to fire, are being crowded out by fast-growing, shade-throwing Douglas firs. The firs are filled with flammable sap and can burn so hot the soil becomes sterile.

“Fire is also very good for maintaining forest diversity,” O’Neil said. Mature forests are composed of many different types of species, from oaks to madrones, redwoods to cypress and maples.

“It’s like finances,” he said. “It’s much safer for the forest long term to have a mix of types in the portfolio.”

O’Neil is concerned that while park visits have been “off the hook” recently, the public may not fully appreciate that parks need active management to promote the health of their environments and wildlife — and public safety.

O’Neil is one of a growing number of experts who believe it will be necessary to take steps like prescribed burns and try to manage public lands so they’re more in alignment with the natural systems that have operated here for millenniums. That’s a long-term goal, one that will require evaluating priorities and committing resources. But with 100 years of dry tinder sitting near homes and communities and an increasingly drier, hotter climate, it may be increasingly important for public safety.

Working with Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, O’Neil and State Parks are looking forward to reopening Armstrong’s magnificent groves soon — as soon as they can ensure the public will be safe from falling trees and other hazards.

Stephen Nett is a Bodega Bay-based Certified California Naturalist, writer and speaker. Contact him at snett@californiasparks.com

To make a donation to the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods fire recovery campaign, visit: stewardscr.org/fire-recovery.html

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette