Fire damage to Sonoma County parks ranges from severe to untouched

Catastrophic wildfires that claimed lives and destroyed property around the North Bay took a toll on public parklands and open space, scorching ridgelines and setting undeveloped mountains hauntingly ablaze.

More than three weeks later, the post-fire assessments in Sonoma County are stark.

Sonoma Valley Regional Park was entirely burned over by fire and 93 percent of Shiloh Ranch Regional Park was burned.

At Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, 80 percent burned, including five homes for park personnel that were destroyed and two wooden outhouses.

More than 60 percent of Trione- Annadel State Park and Hood Mountain Regional Park were damaged by flames, officials said.

All those sites, as well as Robert Louis Stevenson State Park in Napa County, are closed indefinitely.

But the story within each park is more nuanced than the numbers would suggest.

“The fire effects that we're seeing are across a full spectrum,” said Melanie Parker, natural resources manager for Sonoma County Regional Parks. “It's really fascinating to get out there. It's not all heartbreak.”

In some areas, hopscotching flames propelled by shifting winds left meandering burn patterns and large swaths of grass and forest untouched.

In others, the landscape is so unrecognizable it can be disorienting, even for someone very familiar with a given park, said Hattie Brown, Regional Parks natural resources coordinator.

The varying heat and intensity of the fires allowed for a healthy clearing of underbrush in many parts, mostly sparing fire-adapted trees and much of their leafy canopy.

On some slopes, however, the flames burned at such high temperatures that only ash and scorched soil remain below blackened manzanita and matchstick stands of once-green conifers.

Crews equipped with bulldozers left behind broad fireline scars along ridgetops, as well, disturbing soil and plant life in order to make a stand against destructive flames. On the northeast side of Hood Mountain, for example, where a large swath of pygmy forest once stood, uprooted trees have been scattered on barren soil in hopes they will promote regeneration. Nearby, acres of bare grassland have been strewn with straw and seed to hold the soil in place and regrow as the rainy season sets in.

Regional park personnel and maintenance crews have spent days surveying trees, taking down those that pose a safety risk, and undertaking erosion control work in advance of rain. The season's first storm front was expected today.

The damage to parks adds to a unprecedented disaster in Sonoma County, where at least 23 people died in the fires and tens of thousands of residents were displaced from destroyed homes.

Park managers know that opportunities to get out in nature are needed more than ever, given the widespread anguish. And they're hearing from an impatient public eager to have the shuttered parks reopened.

Officials hope visitors may be allowed into some portion of popular Trione-Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa, where mapping indicates more than 3,000 acres burned, said Vince Anibale, a State Parks superintendent for the Bay Area. Most of the damage was in the southern half of the park, so access via Channel Drive on the north end may be possible in the coming weeks, he said.

Jack London State Historic Park outside Glen Ellen already has reopened with free entry through the end of the year.

Parker, the county official, said she's eager to invite visitors back to nearby Sonoma Valley Regional Park, where neighboring communities lost hundreds of homes and residents are likely in need of nature's healing powers.

“It's kind of nice to know that no park is completely scorched, and not every tree is completely dead,” Brown said.

Still, access issues and the extensive reach of the fires mean park managers are still trying to get a handle on all the damage.

The fast-moving Tubbs fire swept across the Mayacamas Mountains from Calistoga to Santa Rosa on Oct. 8, but it didn't arrive in Shiloh Ranch Regional Park outside Windsor until days later.

The 860-acre park provided a buffer between the fire and the town of Windsor. The charred park bears the signs of a determined firefight, including rutted bulldozer treads along disfigured trails. But most coast live oak and big leaf maple trees still stand, their foliage intact. Each day, falling leaves help cover the bare and burned slopes, said Brown, the Regional Parks coordinator.

California Conservation Corps crews were in the park earlier this week, staking erosion control wattles along exposed and burned grades. The straw dissipates the energy of each rain drop while holding some of the moisture away from the earth.

Crews also worked to clear and stabilize a dry creekbed that had been traversed by a bulldozer, collapsing the banks and filling the channel with soil.

“We really need to see what happens after the first big storm,” Brown said.

The Nuns fire that crept into Annadel park from Bennett Ridge and Kenwood left a distinct break between burned and unburned ground, roughly in line with the southern shore of Lake Ilsanjo. Many trees were toppled and extensive damage has been documented throughout the park, which is in for a long recovery, managers said.

A swath of the north end, however, was largely spared, leaving the possibility that some of Annadel might be reopened, Anibale said.

“Since it's a day-use park, we're trying to give some opportunity to folks,” he said.

The Nuns fire also burned through and around the 202-acre Sonoma Valley Regional Park, off Highway 12 next to Glen Ellen. Much of it was burned at low intensity, but some areas show the fire's sheer ferocity: wind-toppled trees incinerated by racing flames, with little left but ghostly shapes in the white ash.

Across the valley, at Hood Mountain, a branch of the Nuns fire that erupted nearly a week after the initial firestorm burned from Pythian Road on the north side of Highway 12 up behind Juvenile Hall in on the mountain's western flank. There, tree stumps still give off smoke in the charred forest.

“We had 1,338 acres burn in this park,” said Regional Parks Ranger Ilana Stoelting. Altogether, Hood Mountain Regional Park spans 1,750 acres.

The fire also took its toll at nearby Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, hitting lower elevations before climbing onto upper slopes, where it left impressive scars visible from the valley.

The blaze spared the visitor center and Ferguson Observatory but destroyed two campground outhouses and the water system, as well as a wooden bridge across Sonoma Creek on the Meadow Trail, Anibale said. Five of six residences used by park personnel were destroyed. Flames also blackened the area of the popular Canyon Trail and seasonal waterfall.

Anibale said he hopes the public can be patient.

“I know people want to get in there,” he said. “We're trying our best to get them in there as soon as possible.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or 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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