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Armstrong Woods, Austin Creek reserve on the road to recovery nearly 2 years after Walbridge fire

ARMSTRONG REDWOODS STATE NATURAL RESERVE — Environmental scientist Brendan O’Neil had been in the business some 20 years when he stood at the back of the Armstrong redwood grove one day in February and saw something he had never seen before.

Brown flecks were falling from the sky — like “pepper rain,” he says. “It was raining brown stuff.”

O’Neil, who works for California State Parks, soon realized that redwoods that were damaged or stressed by the Walbridge fire 18 months earlier were releasing millions of seeds. It was a bumper crop of new life produced in the cones that erupted after the fire and matured over the previous year.

Now, three months later, tiny seedlings are scattered about the valley floor — supple, inch-high plants that, if they survive, may one day produce towering redwood trees to support the ecosystem and eventually wow visitors.

These itty bitty starts are just one way the 805-acre park and adjoining Austin Creek State Recreation Area are recovering from the flames that roared through in August 2020 as part of the LNU Lightning Complex fire, which burned 363,220 acres across five counties.

Today, charred trees that lost most or all of their limbs are covered in bright green, bushy growth called epicormic sprouts, and little trees grow profusely from the base of their trunks.

Elsewhere, green brush and grasses blanket hillsides newly exposed to sunlight after fire cleared away thick trees and undergrowth.

Redwood trees once crowded by Douglas firs and other trees that were burned or killed in the fire no longer have to compete for light, water and nutrients.

“If I could core those redwoods in 10 years, we would see some major boosting of growth,” said O’Neil, senior environmental scientist for state parks’ Sonoma-Mendocino Coast District.

The Walbridge fire started in densely forested country just outside the Austin Creek reserve. It started from a dry lightning storm Aug. 16 or 17 — the day it was discovered — spawning flames that roared through the steeply cut, rural landscape between Cazadero and Healdsburg.

It burned for most of seven weeks, razing 156 homes and blackening 55,209 acres. But many were riveted by news of its entry into the beloved park near the Russian River town of Guerneville, where between 700,000 and a million visitors a year flock to see ancient coast redwood trees — some well over 1,000 years old.

Though the wildfire burned hotly in steeper, more remote areas of the recreation area, it was mostly a low-intensity fire in Armstrong Woods.

It eventually scorched 68% of the park. In the 5,927-acre recreation area, 64% burned.

Extreme measures were needed to protect some of the redwood grove’s most iconic trees, including the Colonel Armstrong Tree — the oldest in the park estimated at 1,400 years old — and it took weeks using infrared equipment to find hidden heat and flames in tree stumps and burned trees that needed to be extinguished.

Wooden fencing, bridges, signage and other infrastructure was destroyed, and thousands of hazard trees have been removed, with particular focus on public use areas.

Armstrong Woods did not reopen until Oct. 29, 2021, and even then, access remains limited to the valley floor.

The Austin Creek area, which burned more severely, remains closed to the public, including the popular Bullfrog Pond Campground, where the restroom still needs rebuilding.

But all in all, the wildfire probably did more good than damage, clearing out a century of excess fuel and inspiring fresh regrowth, O’Neil said.

Robust production of madrone berries, acorns and fresh tree growth also demonstrate the landscape’s evolution with fire as a tool used for millennia by Indigenous tribes.

“A lot of things are happening here that reinforce that fire is an important part of the process here,” O’Neil said.

He was speaking as the lead of a tour of the state park properties Friday as part of a two-day meeting in Sonoma County of the California Wildfire & Forest Resilience Task Force, which drew several hundred people Thursday to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, while hundreds more watched online. They then fanned out across the region on field trips Friday.

The task force, co-led by Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot and Richard Barhydt, director of the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station, was created by Gov. Gavin Newsom in April 2021 to oversee the state’s strategic plan to improve forest health and resilience to wildfire and climate change.

It includes a commitment from each agency to scale up fuels management on public lands through prescribed burning and other means to 500,000 acres each by 2025.

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville, a proponent of so-called “good fire” also serves as chief of the Geyserville-based Northern Sonoma County Fire District.

He said the Walbridge-burned recreation area — once completely ravaged by commercial logging in the days before regulation, and then grown so densely it became a fire hazard — provides a special opportunity for purposeful fire to eliminate hazard fuels.

“We see the Walbridge fire as now a reset on the landscape,” Turbeville said. “We need to take advantage of what’s happening and not let this happen again.”

Even Friday, Turbeville and his crews had lit dozens of pile burns hours ahead of the visit to take advantage of misty weather to safely incinerate dead trees and limbs that had been collected from the forest floor to reduce potential wildfire fuels.

State parks personnel and its partners also are laying the groundwork for future vegetation management, broadcast burning and other “good fire” in the adjoining parks and elsewhere in the district to make them more resilient in the face of inevitable wildfires.

That includes hiring a team of seven forestry people whose jobs will be largely focused on fuels treatment and prescribed burns.

On the road below a green, grassy hillside with several cut stumps and charred trees higher up, O’Neal and park environmental scientist Ryan Klausch discussed a broadcast burn they hoped to light at some point, given the ready fuel provided by several charred trees and some smaller ones.

“We’re going to have to do something about this now,” O’Neil said. “Or fire will do something itself.”

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

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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