Walbridge fire reaches valley floor at Armstrong Woods as crews mobilize to defend structures

The Walbridge fire continued its slow march Monday toward the old-growth redwood groves of Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve outside Guerneville, reaching the northern edge of the park’s valley floor, Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls said during an afternoon briefing.

"The fire has gotten down to the valley floor back at the top end of Armstrong grove, and we're working with State Parks to minimize the impact to the old-growth redwoods that are in the park," Nicholls said.

He added that a fire crew in the reserve had successfully protected park structures and were sent to defend the Colonel Armstrong tree, a colossal 1,400 year-old redwood, the oldest in the park.

“They are deploying as we speak to make sure the fire doesn’t get to the Colonel Armstrong tree,” Nicholls said during the briefing.

The upper rim of Armstrong Woods and swaths of the adjacent Austin Creek State Recreation Area were first hit by the fire on Friday. There were initial concerns that officials wouldn’t be equipped to send firefighters to the area, especially as dry thunderstorms with the potential to spark new blazes were forecast for the weekend.

But those storms largely missed Sonoma County, keeping fire conditions manageable.

Nicholls described the flames within the reserve as a “backing fire,” burning at a “lower intensity” than faster spreading parts of the blaze.

Michele Luna, executive director of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, a nonprofit that helps manage both parks, said since fire officials currently expect the blaze to continue burning mainly along the forest floor, she’s optimistic that the thousand-year-old redwoods won’t suffer serious damage.

“Those redwoods can withstand this, and they should be fine,” she said, noting the same groves survived a large wildfire in the 1920s.

As of Monday morning, all park buildings, including Pond Farm Pottery, a historic artist colony in Austin Creek, had not been damaged in the fire, though some homes on the edge of the reserve have been destroyed, Luna said. State Parks staff had sprayed flame retardant on ranger stations, visitor centers, park offices and historic structures, she said.

The blaze did reach the Bullfrog Pond Campground in Austin Creek, however, and one outbuilding structure had been badly damaged, Luna said. Charred, toppled trees were seen across the campground area.

At around 3 p.m. Monday, flames were climbing up redwoods and licking down hillsides toward the scenic valley floor and its giant trees.

Firefighters were spread out around the reserve, fanning out around various park structures, including the Pond Farm pottery building. The idea was to protect those buildings from the looming threat of the wildfire burning or smoldering at seemingly every turn.

“There’s fire on both sides of this tree,” said Chris Case, a San Diego-area battalion chief, before leading crews into position under the redwoods.

One firefighter on scene remarked that the fire could bring some benefits to the forest by clearing up dried vegetation at ground level. Redwoods are hearty trees, he said while knocking at a burn scar on the inside of one, but he acknowledged some would fall as the fire continued to burn.

Kristen Shive, director science at the San Francisco-based nonprofit Save the Redwoods League, agreed that such low-lying flames, resembling prescribed fires, can have a positive effect on forests, not only by clearing out fuel for future fires, but by breaking down nutrients into the soil.

“There’s a lot of tragedy coming out of these, but from the forest perspective, it really could have an ecological benefit,” she said.

She said old-growth redwoods are built to withstand wildfires, with outer layers of bark that can be up to a foot thick.

“These trees are ancient and have survived many fires,” she said. “Most redwoods burn fairly regularly.”

The slow-moving flames stand in contrast to the fires that have ravaged Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains. There, some of the world’s oldest coastal redwoods have reportedly been destroyed by flames.

Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins was also hopeful that the Armstrong Woods would survive the Walbridge fire’s advance. She noted that the park is home to one of the few publicly accessible old-growth stands in Sonoma County, both a tourist draw and a place of solace for local residents.

“Armstrong Redwoods has always felt like a cathedral to me,” she said. “My daughters actually call it the fairy forest.”

Luna, with Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, added that the park has been a draw for those seeking outdoor refuge during the pandemic. Although the flames may spare the reserve’s most treasured natural wonders, it’s unclear when it could safely reopen for visitors.

“It brings peace to us during this time when there’s so much uncertainty, and now we have deal with even more uncertainty,” she said.

Staff Writer Will Schmitt contributed reporting. You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian.

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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