Volunteers help bring life back to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park
As we’re standing on a new bridge in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, John Roney explains how it was built, specifically how volunteers lugged three 600- to 700-pound redwood beams up and down a steep trail to lay them across a gully near the headwaters of Sonoma Creek. That’s when you begin to understand the old maxim about how “nonprofits are only as strong as their volunteers.”
Last weekend, Sugarloaf officially celebrated its rebirth with a ceremony and fundraiser more than a year after fires burned more than 80 percent of its more than 4,000 acres. Flames destroyed four houses on the property, along with six bridges, multiple benches and 20 retaining walls supporting trails along severe inclines. It felled more than 50 trees over 20 miles of trails that had to be cleared. The reconstruction would never have been possible without a dedicated network of volunteers and donors.
“The rebuilding cost us around $80,000 or so, but if we had contracted all of it out, without the volunteer labor and access to all this wood, it would have likely cost around $400,000 to $500,000,” said Roney, park manager for the past six years, since the Sonoma Ecology Center took over daily operation of the state park.
Most of the $80,000 for reconstruction came from donations: $35,000 from California State Parks Foundation, $48,000 from the Sonoma Community Foundation, along with several $5,000 private donations from families.
On Oct. 8, the night the Nuns fire ignited last year, Roney quickly evacuated staff and more than 50 campers in the park. Then he and an Annadel park ranger spent most of the night banging on doors and alerting neighbors in houses along the narrow Adobe Canyon Road leading up to Sugarloaf.
After the first wave of flames swept through, another more slow-burning fire arrived several days later, cresting the ridge top near Bald Mountain and Mount Hood. It was a painful sequel for those watching the damage unfold across treasured landscapes.
Park staff was allowed back in to start rebuilding in late December, around the same time grass began to sprout from the charred black earth after the first rains.
Tracking wildlife after the fires, Roney and staff saw multiple deer almost immediately. In 2015, two black bear cubs had been spotted on field cameras, a rare sighting in the Mayacamas mountains. By April of this year, cameras captured two full-grown bears in the park, and two months ago they saw a cub. Several mountain lions were also photographed. Another telltale sign was the winter chorus at the frog pond. After the first rains, like every year, the frogs came out in full force and start singing and “making a racket,” Roney said.
Today, the once dense chaparral leading up Bald Mountain is still visibly recovering. Burned black manzanita branches hold skeletal shapes while new green growth sprouts from their trunks. But many scrub oaks look burned beyond return.
“We knew vegetation would come back eventually, but we didn’t really know when or how much,” Roney said. “We were just very lucky. If you could have ordered the postseason rains season - this was it: low and slow.”
The park re-opened on Feb. 1 for limited day-use only. Then limited camping opened on Feb. 15, before full camping resumed in late April.
Before the fires, around 15 volunteers would typically pitch in twice a month. After the fires, 20 to 40 volunteers arrived more frequently, many of them carpenters and builders, showing up twice a week for the first month, and then once a week after that.
Several more waves of volunteers arrived for corporate workdays. St. Francis Winery brought a small army of 80 volunteers one day and bought $10,000 in needed supplies. Kenwood Winery sent around 80 people as well. Levi Strauss Co. sent 40 employees from San Francisco on a service day to do trail work.
“It’s fun,” Roney said. “You get the lady from the legal department and teach her how to use a weed whacker. And the kid from the IT department who’s never used a power drill. They’re just loving it.”
Most of the rebuilding utilized redwood repurposed from trees that fell in the fires.
Around seven or eight redwoods came down at Sugarloaf and more were salvaged from the nearby Sonoma Developmental Center. One of the loyal volunteers is a former arborist and set up a portable Alaskan chainsaw mill to cut boards and beams from the trees.
The popular Robert Ferguson Observatory was spared, along with the Red Barn near Bald Mountain peak. A few days before the fires, a maintenance worker had just weed-whacked around the barn, an old homesteader’s shelter built in 1905, which likely saved it from going up in flames.
Standing atop Bald Mountain, Roney points to a cleared-out region below where four state-owned houses - including a 1906 ranch house, a 1970s Frank Lloyd Wright inspired house and a four-story converted water tower - were all destroyed.
But the oldest tree on the property somehow survived.
Today, a 300- to 400-year-old ancient bigleaf maple - one of the largest in the Western U.S. - still towers along the creek bank near the Meadow Trail bridge, showing only a hint of the giant canopy once appreciated by Miwok and Wappo natives, long before European settlement in the region.
“It was on its last legs before the fire,” said Roney. “It was damaged in the fire. You can see this one piece fell off, but it’s still standing.”