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Citizen scientists visit Sugarloaf to check post-fire recovery

Upcoming Sonoma Ecology Center events

– Dec. 12, 2-4 p.m.: Fire Ecology Hike*

– Jan. 3, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.: Fire Ecology and Salamanders*

For more, visit: sugarloafpark.org/events

*$10, plus parking fee; space limited to 12

Dan Levitis has a question: How do wildland environments rebound after being burned over by repeated large fires in just a few years?

The ecologist and evolutionary biologist with the Sonoma Ecology Center is turning to citizen scientists to help answer this critical inquiry, at a time when climate change threatens the region and catastrophic wildfires have become almost annual. Levitis and the research-driven nonprofit have made Sugarloaf Ridge State Park their primary test case after this year’s Glass fire, which over 23 days torched more than three-quarters of the Sonoma Valley outdoor retreat. The area offers fertile ground for study following the 2017 Nuns fire that did roughly the same amount damage.

“Each of them burned about 75% of the park. The entire park burned in either one fire or the other — and about half of the park burned twice,” Levitis told a group of a dozen visitors on Saturday. “That raises a lot of questions about what’s going on. We want to find out what happened in the park, and how the park is recovering from the fire.”

Already, just seven weeks since the Glass fire was fully contained, Sugarloaf is showing signs of regeneration. Even so, just four of the park’s more than 16 trails are open to hikers as volunteer crews continue making progress on their restoration.

“The trails are looking really good, we’ve just got to do a little more infrastructure. Still a final step here, or embankment here,” said Tony Passantino, education program manager for the ecology center, which helps oversee the park. “We’ll see, but I’m hopeful by the end of the year we’ll get more open.”

Just off the Meadow Trail on the cloudy Saturday afternoon, above the Robert Ferguson Observatory that has been saved in both fires, Levitis pointed out new grass seedlings that have begun to shoot up from the ground after a recent storm. Gophers navigating their way through a network of dirt mounds have helped churn the soil and speed up the germination process, he said.

On a nearby hillside, where treetops remain high above the scorched and blackened earth, siblings a few branches down weren’t as lucky and essentially cooked to a crisp from the ground up. But life has started to spring anew, with neon green plant life beginning to again take up residence and hide the dark burn scars across the elevated ridges still visible with the naked eye.

Parents A.J. and Jessica DeMartini of Sonoma took time away from camping in the park to bring their 5-year-old son Erminio on the afternoon jaunt and learn more about Sugarloaf’s recovery. The couple agreed the burned expanses looked better than they anticipated — and an improvement from what they witnessed after the 2017 firestorm hit the area.

“I was expecting stuff to just be gone. It doesn’t look as different as I thought it would, though,” said Jessica DeMartini, 43.

Young children, as well as a few adults, spent time planting flags and observing vegetation — a mix of native and invasive species that populate Sugarloaf — regaining a foothold at a study area designated by Levitis. They took out measuring tapes to establish the boundary, estimated the height of nearby tree damaged by a bulldozed firebreak, and recorded their findings in a mobile phone app that archives global biodiversity data.

“Part of our research program is keeping in mind not just that we’re studying what happened after the last fire, but that we’re studying what happens before the next fire,” Levitis said.

Sharon Beals, 75, drove up from San Francisco to join the forensic hiking event — the first of several such family-friendly activities scheduled in the coming months — to take photographs that document the aftermath of the fires. She, too, was impressed by the swift progress of regrowth at Sugarloaf.

“It was very nice to see areas that I’ve seen that burned in 2017 that have been burned again, and at the base of those plants are new leaves,” said Beals. “So I’m not as despairing, I think, as we’ve been hearing that fire is part of this ecosystem. I’m not horrified. I’m hopeful.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

Upcoming Sonoma Ecology Center events

– Dec. 12, 2-4 p.m.: Fire Ecology Hike*

– Jan. 3, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.: Fire Ecology and Salamanders*

For more, visit: sugarloafpark.org/events

*$10, plus parking fee; space limited to 12

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