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.