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