Armstrong Woods, Austin Creek Preserve on Road to Recovery Nearly 2 Years After Walbridge Fire

ARMSTRONG REDWOODS STATE NATURE RESERVE – Environmental scientist Brendan O’Neil had been in the business for about 20 years when he stood in the back of Armstrong’s redwood grove one day in February and saw something he had never seen before.

Dark spots were falling from the sky – like “pepper rain”, he said. “It was raining brown stuff.”

O’Neil, who works for California State Parks, soon realized that redwood trees damaged or stressed by the Walbridge fire 18 months earlier were shedding millions of seeds. It was a bumper crop of new life produced in the cones that burst open after the fire and matured over the previous year.

Now, three months later, tiny seedlings are strewn across the valley floor – lithe, inch-tall plants that, if they survive, could one day produce towering redwood trees to sustain the ecosystem and eventually impress visitors.

These tiny departures are just one of the ways the 805-acre park and adjacent Austin Creek State Recreation Area is recovering from the flames that roared in August 2020 as part of the LNU Lightning Complex fire, which burned 363,220 acres in five counties.

Today, charred trees that have lost most or all of their limbs are covered in bright green bushy growth called epicormic shoots, and small trees sprout profusely from the base of their trunks.

Elsewhere, green brush and grass cover the hillsides newly exposed to the sun after the fire wiped out thick trees and undergrowth.

Redwoods once crowded with Douglas firs and other trees that were burned or killed in the fire no longer have to compete for light, water and nutrients.

“If I could dig these redwoods 10 years from now, we’d see a major acceleration in growth,” said O’Neil, senior environmental scientist for the Sonoma-Mendocino Coastal District of State Parks.

The Walbridge Fire started in densely forested country just outside the Austin Creek Reservation. It all started with a dry thunderstorm on August 16 or 17 – the day it was discovered – spawning flames that roared across the heavily indented rural landscape between Cazadero and Healdsburg.

It burned for most of seven weeks, leveling 156 homes and blackening 55,209 acres. But many were fascinated by news of its entry into the beloved park near the town of Guerneville on the Russian River, where between 700,000 and one million visitors a year flock to see ancient coast redwoods – some over 1000 years old.

Although the wildfire burned hot in steeper areas farther from the recreation area, it was mostly a low-intensity fire in Armstrong Woods.

He eventually burned 68% of the park. In the 5,927-acre recreation area, 64% has burned.

Extreme measures were needed to protect some of the redwood grove’s most iconic trees, including Colonel Armstrong’s tree – the oldest in the park estimated at 1,400 years – and it took weeks of help from ‘infrared equipment to find the heat and flames hidden in the stumps of trees and burned. trees that had to be extinguished.

Wooden fences, bridges, road signs and other infrastructure were destroyed, and thousands of dangerous trees felled, with particular emphasis on areas of public use.

Armstrong Woods only reopened on October 29, 2021, and even then access remains limited to the valley floor.

The Austin Creek area, which has burned more severely, remains closed to the public, including the popular Bullfrog Pond campground, where restrooms have yet to be rebuilt.

But overall, the wildfire likely did more good than damage, wiping out a century of excess fuel and inspiring new regrowth, O’Neil said.

The robust production of madrone berries, acorns and the growth of fresh trees also demonstrate the evolution of the landscape with fire as a tool used for millennia by indigenous tribes.

“A lot of things are going on here that reinforce that fire is an important part of the process here,” O’Neil said.

He was speaking as the leader of a tour of state park properties on Friday as part of a two-day meeting in Sonoma County of the California Wildfire & Forest Resilience Task Force, which drew several hundred people Thursday at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, while hundreds more watched online. They then dispersed throughout the region during field visits on Friday.

The task force, co-led by Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot and Richard Barhydt, director of the US Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station, was established by Governor Gavin Newsom in April 2021 to oversee the plan. state strategy to improve forest health and resilience. forest fires and climate change.

It includes a commitment from each agency to expand fuel management on public lands through prescribed burns and other means to 500,000 acres each by 2025.

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshal Turbeville, a proponent of the so-called “good fire,” is also the Chief of the North Sonoma County Fire District, based in Geyserville.

He said the recreational area burned by Walbridge – once completely ravaged by commercial logging in the days before the regulations, then developed so densely that it has become a fire hazard – offers a special opportunity for a fire. deliberate to eliminate hazardous fuels.

“We see the Walbridge fire as a landscape reset,” Turbeville said. “We have to take advantage of what is happening and not let it happen again.”

Even Friday, Turbeville and his crews had lit dozens of burnt piles hours before the visit to take advantage of the foggy weather to safely incinerate dead trees and branches that had been picked up from the forest floor to reduce combustibles. forest fire potential.

State Parks staff and partners are also laying the groundwork for future vegetation management, scorching and other “good fires” in adjacent parks and elsewhere in the district to make them more resilient to the face. to the inevitable forest fires.

This includes hiring a team of seven foresters whose duties will largely focus on fuel processing and prescribed burns.

On the road under a green, grassy hill with several cut stumps and charred trees higher up, O’Neal and park environmental scientist Ryan Klausch discussed a diffuse burn they hoped to ignite at some point. , given the ready fuel provided by several charred trees and a few smaller ones.

“We’re going to have to do something about it now,” O’Neil said. “Or the fire will do something of itself.”

You can reach editor Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or [email protected] On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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