Armstrong Woods, Austin Creek recreation area to stay closed until spring or later

The million or so visitors who seek serenity each year at Armstrong Woods in Guerneville or who slip into the nearly 6,000 acres of adjoining wilderness known as Austin Creek State Recreation Area will have to demonstrate the virtue of patience for months to come yet, as they await reopening of the fire-scarred parks.

The lightning-sparked Walbridge fire that seared much of northwest Sonoma County over six weeks beginning in August has been contained for almost a month, but it will be much longer before visitors can return to state park properties impacted by the flames.

Certain park infrastructure needs repair — the restroom and water system at Bullfrog Pond Campground, for instance — and park personnel still need to assess trails, bridges and retaining walls for damage. There is also some culvert replacement underway, and some fencing and signs need replacement.

But the chief concern among park officials are hundreds, maybe thousands of hazard trees throughout the area, those that are obviously a fall risk and those that may not be.

Some are leaning or tangled in neighboring trees, their own roots burned away or still smoldering, they said.

In other cases, an unsuspecting visitor could step into a cavity left by an incinerated root ball or even encounter material inside that’s still burning.

“There are so many scary, crazy trees out here,” state parks Natural Resource Manager Brendan O’Neil said. “There are so many trees hung up in other trees — not just one, but like three of them together — and they’re suspended off the ground. And it’s like, Wow, just the right wind, and a hard hat isn’t going to do you any favors in that kind of situation.”

So, though the intensity of the fire varied across the area concerned, state park officials do not expect to reopen any part of the parks until spring, at the earliest, and maybe even summer, Sonoma-Mendocino Coast District superintendent Terry Bertels said.

“We’ve still got fire in the park, and we will have until we get some rain, and it’s mostly fire in the form of smoldering roots or cavities,” Bertels said.

Trees that are burned but cold, meanwhile, may still fail, though their instability won’t be revealed until the ground is saturated and high winds arrive.

Conversely, the passage of time may allow a weakened tree to stabilize, preventing its unnecessary removal, Bertels said.

“We don’t want to take a tree out that still has a chance to make it, but we’ve got to get through some winds and wet soils,” he said.

Hundreds of trees already have come down and are stacked awaiting processing for sale as camp firewood. A huge pile awaits attention near the northern end of Armstrong Woods, an area normally used for picnicking. Most of the trees — everything from tanoaks and Douglas firs to eucalyptus — come from uphill at the Austin Creek State Recreation Area, a wide expanse of rugged terrain north and northwest of Armstrong Redwood State Natural Reserve offering a mix of forest, woodlands, grassy hillsides and cool streams at 150 to 1,500 feet.

The Walbridge fire was discovered just outside its boundaries on the afternoon of Aug. 17, one of dozens of wildfires sparked around the region during a two-day lightning storm and part of the LNU Lightning Complex, which would eventually burn 363,220 acres in five counties

The Walbridge scorched more than 55,000 acres and destroyed 156 homes in Sonoma County, burning especially intensely during its initial run through some of the county’s steepest, most remote terrain, which included the upper reaches of Austin Creek reserve, Gilliam and McCray ridges, the Mill Creek watershed and other nearby areas north of Guerneville and west of Healdsburg.

Over the ensuing days, the fire burned through 3,801 acres of Austin Creek’s landscape, or about 64% of the reserve, and backed more slowly downhill into the northern end of the 805-acre Armstrong Woods complex, sneaking down side trails and embankments onto the valley floor, eventually burning 68% of the park.

Regular visitors anxiously awaited word of the magnificent old-growth redwoods that have drawn so many millions of people to the grove, which survived. Fire crews stayed in the park night after night to ensure the preservation of the most iconic, particularly the oldest, the 1,400-plus-year-old Colonel Armstrong Tree, which was sprayed with fire retardant foam as flames came right to its base.

Other redwoods that have been burned already are sprouting greenery from the trunks, “so they’re going to have a different look to them, but we’re definitely seeing a lot of recovery in those redwoods,” O’Neil said.

Yet much of the grove remained untouched by fire, its remnants not even visible until a visitor is well back into the grove and bare hills become visible, as well as the charred ground.

Much survived, including the 1934 forest amphitheater, a product of the Works Progress Administration, the picnic tables, offices, storage and a van used by Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, the nonprofit that co-manages the parks with state parks.

Executive Director Michele Luna said firefighters fiercely defended the structures, though a staff residence and some outbuildings on the Austin Creek property were destroyed.

Also intact is Pond Farm, the site of an artist colony run by famed ceramicist Marguerite Wildenhain, who fled Nazi Germany and established her enclave north of the Armstrong grove, on what’s now Austin Creek reserve.

“You drive up the hill. and you see the charred areas and then you get to Pond Farm, and all around Pond Farm is burned,” Luna said. “And then you get up further and you’re just kind of struck by how it all looks, though it’s already starting to come back. The sprouting is already there, and you can see certain areas where it’s coming back really nicely.”

She and others also remarked on the abundant wildlife that has ventured into Armstrong Woods in the absence of visitors — deer families, birds, Douglas squirrels that normally would stay away from human areas.

“You’re seeing stuff that you normally see in the furthest corners of the park in the grove, where we have a million visitors a year,” O’Neil said.

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

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