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Walbridge fire hits upper part of Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve

GUERNEVILLE ― The redwood grove at the base of Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve has never looked more lovely than it did Friday, as golden light filtered through the tall trees in a hushed landscape mostly devoid of human intrusion.

It was easy to forget that a massive fire was burning about a mile up Armstrong Woods Road, where a tongue of the Walbridge fire, having crept through adjoining Austin Creek State Recreational Area, was bearing down on the closed state park’s historic buildings, the soaring trees of the grove and the rest of the beloved site’s attractions.

“We know the fire has not gotten into the grove itself yet,” Michele Luna, executive director of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, said in midafternoon. “But it’s expected to happen, perhaps within 24 hours.”

Luna’s hope was that fire crews could at least save the Pond Farm Pottery buildings, which are on the National Register of Historic Places, and an outdoor amphitheater, Forest Theater, built by the Works Project Administration during the Great Depression. And perhaps the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods office, situated practically in the redwood grove.

“That will probably be the first building the fire encounters, unless it comes from a different direction,” Luna said.

Hours later, those buildings were still intact.

Luna called the outbreak of fire devastating for her organization, which helps run Armstrong Woods and adjacent Austin Creek State Recreation Area, but she sounded almost resigned to the outcome. Similar sentiments had been expressed by Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls during a virtual public meeting on Thursday evening, when he said, “We just don’t have the resources to keep the fire out of Armstrong Woods.”

Everywhere within the LNU Lightning Complex, the massive collection of fires that has ravaged Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Solano and Yolo counties since an unprecedented set of thunderstorms rolled through California on Sunday and Monday, fire commanders were having to make difficult calculations about what was most valuable, and what could reasonably be saved.

The terrible truth for Luna and other nature lovers was that even one of the most beautiful and ancient redwood forests in the North Bay could not be prioritized over threatened towns like Healdsburg, Cazadero, Rio Nido and Guerneville.

But Cal Fire representative Paul Lowenthal, who doubles as an assistant fire marshal at the Santa Rosa Fire Department, refused to frame it as opting between parkland and civilization.

“It’s not like they’re choosing not to save the park,” Lowenthal said from his base at the Russian River Fire Protection District firehouse, just minutes from the Armstrong Woods entrance. “It’s a matter of preventing it from moving into the park. You don’t want the fire to continue to burn through that, because that’s just going to increase the intensity. You want to keep it out of fuels like that.”

Lowenthal’s point: The best way to protect towns and redwood groves alike is to battle the Walbridge wherever it is most efficiently confronted.

Around midday, Lowenthal was not able to say how many resources Cal Fire had specifically devoted to defending Armstrong Woods. But as Nicholls had suggested, there simply aren’t enough fire crews, engines and air tankers to fight the many fires in California right now. Something has to give, and families who have grown to love Armstrong Woods and adjoining the Austin Creek area, feared it would be the park that comes away with the fewest defenses.

The Walbridge fire had already scorched much of Austin Creek on Thursday, burning through the Bullfrog Pond campground and over the ridge into Armstrong. Luna said it had destroyed the home of one of the Stewards’ volunteers on McMahon Road, and some other houses along or near that fire road.

With bark that can be as much as a foot thick on some of the oldest trees, coast redwoods are built to withstand wildfire, so much of Luna’s concern was focused Friday on structures such as the barn and the former home of renowned potter Marguerite Wildenhain at Pond Farm, rather than towering redwoods like the 1,400-year-old General Armstrong Tree.

“The land itself can handle fire,” she said.

Christopher Godley, Sonoma County’s director of emergency management, had a similar message for the county Board of Supervisors at a special meeting held remotely Friday afternoon to address the fires.

“The redwoods know how to live with this,” Godley said. “We’re hopeful the ecosystem knows how to bounce back.”

Many ancient and second-growth giants bear the scars of flames and lightning strikes. But they can burn if a fire is hot enough.

Ninety miles to the south, on the Santa Cruz coast, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California’s oldest state park, saw a different lightning-caused inferno claim the historic visitor center and campgrounds, while scorching much of the forest.

“We are working to determine the fires’ impact on the redwood forest, in the magnificent old growth of Big Basin, and in the many other redwood parks within the fires’ active areas, but the fire crews are rightly focused on containment and saving lives,“ Sam Hodder, president of the San Francisco-based Save the Redwoods League, said in a written statement on Friday. ”We are, of course, hoping with all our hearts that the ancient redwoods’ natural fire defenses have protected them.“

In Sonoma County, if the wind direction pushed the Walbridge fire directly toward Armstrong Woods, it could heighten the heat and intensity of the flames, sending them higher into the redwood canopy, Godley said.

He noted the wind direction at that time was in the park’s favor, leaving fire activity on the rim. And much later in the day, flags in Guerneville were moving in more of a northeasterly direction, with the heaviest action miles to the north, closer to Lake Sonoma and overlooking Dry Creek Valley. Satellite mapping released late Friday by the county water agency showed that the Walbridge fire had barely expanded within the state park Friday.

Luna did have concerns about the undergrowth surrounding the park’s redwoods, which she said is important to the overall redwood ecosystem. That growth also happens to be a major fuel source during wildfires. Fortunately, Luna said, a state parks equipment manager had gone into Austin Creek a couple weeks ago. Stewards staff followed and cleared brush off the roads.

The general feeling was that everyone was doing as much as they could to survive and mitigate this latest natural disaster. Whether it would be enough to save the historic buildings and redwoods of Armstrong Woods wasn’t certain as sundown approached and all still hung in the balance.

“The Russian River area has experienced so much, and now this global pandemic on top, but somehow we stay resilient,” Luna said. “I won’t say we haven’t shed tears already, but you have to pull yourself together and stay strong. Every day, I’m so amazed at how we can live with such uncertainty and keep going.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 707-529-5218 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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