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Sonoma County parks a mosaic of ash and unburned islands after Glass fire

From a distance, wildfire ash almost looks like snow peeking out from stands of barren trees and pockets of green canopy on the ridges and slopes encompassing 8,800 acres of parkland in the Mayacamas Mountains straddling the Sonoma and Napa valleys.

The Glass fire burned through the majority of these treasured preserved lands, moving throughout all of Hood Mountain Regional Park and roughly 90% of Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, leaving pockets of green islands within the burn scars.

Stewards of these lands say the next several months will involve urgent work to prevent traumatic erosion to the land, stop large sediment deposits from clogging creeks, and tamping down invasive weeds so that native plants have a chance to grow back and thrive.

Though it could be months before the public is allowed to return to the trails and the stunning panoramic view of the valley from Gunsight Rock, the outlook is far from grim for the flora and creatures adapted to fire.

“It’s not a tragedy when a park burns,” said Melanie Parker, deputy director of Sonoma County Regional Parks.

Staff in both parks have been unable conduct thorough assessments of the damage, with the Glass fire still burning and only half contained. Cal Fire crews are still putting out isolated areas of smoldering fire in Adobe Canyon leading into Sugarloaf. Other workers have already begun to repair the expanded trails and bare-earth fire breaks cleared by dozers during the firefight.

Maria Mowrey, California State Parks superintendent for the Bay Area district, said she hopes to reopen Sugarloaf Ridge State Park within a matter of weeks once the fire activity is fully contained or only active in an area far from parklands. Mowrey said she has not received an assessment of the damage but has been told the fire’s greatest damage was in backcountry areas.

“The land is scarred. I’m worried about landslides, mudslides,” Mowrey said. ”But fire is natural, you want it to burn.“

These parklands were also hit during the 2017 firestorm when fingers of the Nuns fire burned in from both the southeast and the southwest. The landscape and forests were nearly three years into recovery, offering a glimpse into the resiliency of native ecosystems and the stunning wildflowers that follow fire in the spring.

“What we learned in 2017 is that once the rains hit, these burned stumps started to sprout, grasses started to come up and then the first flowers bloomed,” Parker said. “I think it helps people feel the resilience in the earth and feel hopeful.”

The Glass fire made its fierce entry into the Sonoma Valley the night of Sept. 27, burning across Mount Hood and down Los Alamos Road about 15 hours after the fire first erupted across the Napa Valley on an eastern flank of Howell Mountain.

One week into the firefight, Sugarloaf and Adobe Canyon held a critical and difficult southern edge of the Glass fire.

Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls said that line of the fire aligned with the prevailing northwestern winds, drawing concerns the wind might send aggressive flames into incredibly steep, forested Adobe Canyon. If the blaze blasted into the canyon it would be difficult to contain, funneling fire straight toward Kenwood and south to Trinity Road.

That worst-case scenario didn’t happen. Fire did burn down to the canyon floor and creek in some areas, but at a slow pace and with low intensity that firefighters managed to contain, Nicholls said. Some homes in the canyon were lost in the fire but many more were saved. A final tally is pending.

“We gave it all we had to keep it in Adobe Canyon and Sugarloaf,” Nicholls said.

The campground and Robert Ferguson Observatory were spared from the fire, but the historic 1906 Old Red Barn at the top of High Ridge trail was lost to flames, park manager John Roney said.

The hills around the visitors center were blackened mostly by defensive backfires lit to clear out fuels and prevent hot uncontrolled fire from encroaching on the park’s most visited areas, Roney said.

The 4,900-acre park is operated by the nonprofit Sonoma Ecology Center but state parks officials will have the final say for when it can allow visitors again.

“Most of the hot fire was up in remote areas,” said Roney, indicating that will help speed up reopening plans. “But it’s in the state’s hands.”

The timeline is likely longer for Hood Mountain Regional Park, a 2,000-acre preserve with a grueling hike up to Gunsight Rock, its payoff offering stunning views across the vineyard-lined Sonoma Valley to Bennett Peak and Sonoma Mountain.

Parker said she believes they lost some utility buildings, such as a sign-making shop, but county staff have not been able to “get eyes on the park yet” because significant hazards remain heading to the main entrance on Los Alamos Road.

The work ahead involves preparing for winter. Bare and burned earth washes away readily with rain, clogging culverts, overtaking roads and creating other dangers like falling trees.

Parker readily admits that Hood Mountain is her favorite of the county’s regional parks because hiking its trails and ridges "you truly get a wilderness feel.“

The park is also incredibly diverse biologically and contains the headwaters of Santa Rosa Creek, she said.

After the 2017 fires, the parklands “did a remarkable job recovering on their own,“ Parker said. Even earth exposed by bulldozers and delicate Sargent’s cypress serpentine habitat burned by fire have rebounded with little intervention.

”We were at the ready to replant,“ Parker said. ”We didn’t have to because nature had a plan.“

Monday, firefighters from Los Angeles City used axes and hoses to root out and extinguish smoldering areas of fire along the Pony Gate Trail near Sugarloaf’s entrance. Across the road, the forest appears totally untouched by fire along a trail to a portion of Sonoma Creek that in winter becomes a cascading waterfall.

Eastward at higher elevations of the park on the Gray Pine trail, PG&E crews replaced a power pole. A Cal Fire contractor maneuvered an excavator to grab huge piles of fallen debris and cover bare earth. A state parks staffer hauled absorbent straw wattles to shore up scarred areas before the rains expected Friday.

Where it is beneficial, the fire will have reduced the number of living Douglas fir trees that have over decades crowded out the native hardwoods, said Jason Mills, restoration and fire ecologist with the Sonoma Ecology Center.

When those firs were hit in the 2017 fires “that allowed our hardwood forest of oak and madrone to flourish,” Mills said.

Mills said he believes the fire was hottest and most damaging in the 1,400-acre McCormick addition to the park north of Hood Mountain.

It was in that addition on a small hill off Headwaters Trail where an October windstorm last year — the same one that fanned the Kincade fire — knocked over a centuries-old live oak tree known as the Grandmother Oak. Its decomposing branches were likely in the path of a hot and ferocious front of the Glass fire as it moved through.

Mills said he is eager to explore Sugarloaf, where he hopes to find a mosaic of burned areas and green islands, but he knows some areas will require remediation. Sonoma Ecology Center will enlist volunteers to help remove invasive species such as the yellow star-thistle and Armenian blackberry that may reappear in burned areas, some carried into pristine areas on firefighting equipment, Mills said.

Spring will bring a dazzling array of annual and ephemeral native wildflowers, covering meadows with wild morning glories, bush poppies and native bulbs safe under the earth as fire burned over like Mariposa lilies.

“Those are quick to move in after fire, and they are just gorgeous,” Mills said. “They cover the chaparral while it’s starting to root, sprout and come back.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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