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News: 11/01/2017

Many local parks, trails to remain closed through the end of the year

Jack London State Park miraculously spared, reopens this week

At the end of Adobe Canyon Road, beyond charred remains of homes and burnt trees, a chained green gate wrapped in red and yellow caution tape blocks the road to a now-closed Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.It’s unclear when the park will reopen.

trail leading through charred meadow
This photo, taken near the entrance kiosk at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park on Monday, Oct. 23, shows a charred meadow on either side of the Pony Gate Trail. Photo by John Roney.

The story is much the same for other local parks, including Sonoma Valley Regional Park and Hood Mountain Regional Park, which bore the brunt of the catastrophic wildfires that swept through Sonoma Valley in the weeks following Oct. 8.

An estimated 80 percent (3,511 acres) of Sugarloaf State Park burned, although damage to infrastructure was relatively light. The Visitor’s Center, the White Barn, and the Big Red Barn are still standing. Fire burned to the edge of the campgrounds, but the new bathhouse and four of the six stand-alone toilet facilities survived. The Robert Ferguson Observatory survived, but the nearby wooden bridge on the Meadow Trail did not. In the early hours of Monday morning, as the Nuns fire was spreading in high winds and authorities found themselves overwhelmed, Sugarloaf Park Manager John Roney, who lives in Santa Rosa, drove up the canyon to evacuate campers and observatory visitors at the park. He then knocked on doors of residents up and down Adobe Canyon Road, letting people know it was time to get out. After the fire danger passed, park staff returned to collect all the camping gear from the campground. Untouched by the fire, it is now being stored and awaiting return to its owners.

For safety and resource protection reasons, Sugarloaf State Park will remain closed until further notice. The initial cleanup process will focus on preventing soil erosion into the headwaters, and on removing any toxic substances from the man-made structures that burned. Other work that may need to be done includes tree hazard inspections in burn areas; rehabilitation of areas bulldozed for fire breaks; repairs to compromised and unsafe facilities such as bridges, picnic tables, benches and restrooms; and repairs to trails to prevent soil erosion and degradation to trail tread. Cultural specialists must assure that there is no exposure of protected cultural sites. This could take months or longer. No timeline has been given.

This is also the official message for the 5,000-plus-acre Trione-Annadel State Park, which was threatened twice by two different fires and became ground zero for fire suppression operations and backburns to help stop the steady march of flames into Santa Rosa and Oakmont. An estimated 67 percent – 3,108 acres – of Trione-Annadel was burned. Cal Fire crews wrapped up much of their fire suppression mitigation work (i.e. repairing bulldozer fire breaks) in the park on Oct. 27, and state park staff have been out in the park assessing fire impacts and identifying possible safety hazards. Volunteer coordinator Sarah Reid said although some parts of the park appear untouched by fire, the whole park suffered damage from the high winds and those hazards have not fully been evaluated yet. For safety reasons, Channel Drive from the gate and all other park entrance points are closed until further notice. Rangers will be issuing citations for those trespassing.

From an ecological standpoint, the park and wildlife will rebound, as fire is a normal part of California’s landscape. Users, however, will find the park and trails looking very different for many years to come. State Parks is urging people to be patient and check the website as they are inundated with emails and phone calls. “We’re not keeping a secret, we just don’t know yet,” said Reid.

“One hundred percent of Sonoma Valley Regional Park is burned, except for the dog park, and, inexplicably, the picnic tables along the paved walking path,” said Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker. While the extent of ecological and tree damage won’t be known for some time, Whitaker says he suspects the parklands will come back OK in the long run.

Whitaker said the department is trying to get the paved path open in 202-acre regional park “as soon as possible,” although the dirt trails may remain closed until next year. Whitaker estimates they’ll know more in the next four to six weeks.

Soil erosion and mudslides are also of top concern at the badly charred Hood Mountain Regional Park, especially on the east side near the Pythian Road entrance. At press time, Whitaker had no firm assessment of how much of that park’s 1,750 acres had been damaged by the fires.

“We are not nearly as far along in the assessment of the damage [at Hood Mountain Regional Park],” said Whitaker, noting that the challenging topography of steep slopes and narrow canyons meant the fire was more aggressive there and burned for multiple days.

“The priority with Hood is to get through the wet season,” said Whitaker. “A big concern for lower Hood is roads and keeping them open for access and residents who live there.” Regional Parks plans to dedicate a team “to be available before, during, and after rain events” as a systematic way to keep an eye on erosion in all its damaged parks.

trail sign
On Oct. 27, the Lower Johnson Ridge Trail at Hood Mountain Regional Park still bore the signs of a large fire break created by bulldozers to fight the Oakmont Fire.

Whitaker said current overall estimates are that 2,000 acres of Sonoma County Regional Parks’ 12,000-plus acres were burned, with Shiloh in Windsor, Hood Mountain and Sonoma Valley regional parks being the hardest hit.

Despite the challenges, firefighters were able to save the ranger residence near the Lower Johnson Ridge Trail in Hood Mountain, although the historic Hendrickson homestead near the Orchard Trail did burn. The historic Hood Mansion survived and the historic Lawson homestead, on the newest addition to the park, was also saved.

The Los Alamos Road side of Hood Mountain Park, like Azalea Creek Campground, suffered damage mostly from big trees falling in the record-setting wind gusts preceding the fires, but there are many visible scars from the fire suppression activities on Pythian Road side.

Whitaker said Regional Parks is working closely with Cal Fire. Cal Fire will certify the highest areas of concern and that will open doors to get funding to return the parks to their previous state. “The goal is to get people in. People love these parks, that’s why they live here, why they visit here,” said Whitaker, “We want to expedite that and seek any necessary funding to do that.”

Miraculously, one bright spot amid all this smoky destruction is Jack London State Historic Park, which was also threatened by multiple fires, but survived with no burned acreage within state park boundaries. Not only that, but the many historical artifacts from Jack London’s cottage and the House of Happy Walls Museum were evacuated out of the park. “Early on Monday, under great risk to themselves, state park personnel returned with first responders and removed all irreplaceable artifacts from the cottage and museum. They now are stored in a state parks warehouse,” said Jack London Park Partners executive director Tjiska Van Wyck. “We are working on a timeline to get those returned.” Jack London’s historic cottage and a staff residence on site were treated with fire retardant gel and survived. The House of Happy Walls Museum and other historical points of interest are also undamaged.

Volunteers surveyed the backcountry trails through the end of October, identifying hazards and blocked trails. As of press time, Jack London plans to open Nov. 1, with all entry fees waived through the end of the year. “There is a lot of anxiety, stress, and unhappiness out there right now and we truly believe nature offers solace and healing. We want this to be available to anyone and everyone,” said van Wyck. The park is also planning a calendar of community activities and gatherings to bring the community together and start that healing process.

Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.

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