North Bay Open Space Managers Wait To Survey Losses

October 12, 2017

The massive wildfires in Napa and Sonoma counties continued to burn unabated into a fourth day as flames lit up new areas of the North Bay while an uptick in fire-stoking winds last night dashed hopes of containing the burn anytime soon.

With at least 3,500 structures destroyed, 50,000 people evacuated, 24 confirmed dead and 463 missing people, according to the latest reports, emergency responders have been erecting fire lines and other protective measures along urban boundaries as the human tragedy unfolds. Little is known about the impacts of the 120,000-acre burn on Sonoma and Napa county parks, open spaces, research reserves, and sensitive habitats as resource managers work to evacuate staff, animals, and artifacts.

“Honestly, right now we are, along with everyone else, focused on supporting efforts with evacuations and notifications,” said Sonoma County Regional Parks’ natural resources manager, Melanie Parker. “There are 17 active fires in the region and all of them have the potential to spread. We’re not taking stock of our natural assets yet.”

Parker said the situation has been “very chaotic” for the county parks’ staff, seven of whom have lost their homes while many others are under evacuation or without power.

“We’re working remotely and trying to manage kids with no schools,” she said. “It’s a very in-the-moment disaster situation.”

Elsewhere, reports have come in that Pepperwood Preserve, a research center northeast of Santa Rosa that supports climate change monitoring, among other projects, sustained heavy burning in the Tubbs fire, wiping out several staff residences. The 535-acre Bouverie Preserve near Glen Ellen that has provided environmental education to thousands of schools kids was badly damaged according to news from Audubon Canyon Ranch, which runs the preserve. They reported October 12 that “All of the structures with the exception of M.F.K. Fisher’s Last House and David Bouverie’s historic main house were consumed by the fire…and we are still trying to assess the consequences. We are grateful to report that ACR staff are all safe.” International Bird Rescue, a wildlife hospital in Fairfield, is threatened by flames and has transferred more than a dozen birds, including oystercatchers, sandpipers, a rail and a pelican, to the WildCare wildlife rehabilitation center in San Rafael.

Many state parks in the area have burned, including Trione-Annadel State Park, and remain closed, while about 1,000 acres of grasslands above the tidal marshes at Sears Point went up in flames with sparks jumping over Highway 37 and continuing up Cougar Mountain. It’s the worst fire to hit the North Bay since the 1964 Hanley fire, which burned 53,000-acres and destroyed 156 homes as it spread from the base of Mount St. Helena to Santa Rosa.

The charred remains of the grasslands at Sears Point (Photo by Steve Pye)
The charred remains of the grasslands at Sears Point (Photo by Steve Pye)

“This is absolutely devastating,” said Brian Moriarty, a senior project manager at Trust For Public Land. “To see landscapes we love so much and worked so hard to protect burning — it’s very disturbing. We’ve got active projects and recently-completed projects that are within miles of the fireline.”

John Woodbury, the general manager of Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District, said staff are safe and so far the district has kept all its buildings. As for the district’s open space lands, he’s been able to get a look at the burn at Skyline Wilderness Park but otherwise has been restricted to his smoky office in the city of Napa looking at the same fire maps as everyone else.

From those maps he reckons about 400-acres has burned at Suscol Headwaters Preserve and then some more at The Cove, a wooded Girl Scout camp at the top of Mount Veeder that the open space district has an option to purchase.

Some of these lands, namely The Cove, Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, and Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, have forests that will take a long time to recover, if ever, considering the changing climate. The grassland areas are a bit better off, Woodbury said, but he’s worried about the winter ahead.

“My immediate question is, are there going to be erosion issues this winter. What do we need to do about that?” Woodbury said.

The conditions were ripe for a major fire as heavy rains last winter fed the growth of a voluminous amount of vegetation on the landscape that became the fuel for fall wildfire season. All that was needed was a spark and the steady blow of autumn’s typical hot, offshore ‘Diablo’ winds to set the scene ablaze.

“I woke up Monday morning and found perfectly intact charred leaves littering the ground,” said Wendy Eliot, the conservation manager of Sonoma Land Trust, who lives west of Sebastopol. “Black oak and bay leaves, perfectly charred that floated all the way across the county and landed in the backyard. That gives a sense of the winds howling through this place.”

Eliot said many of Sonoma Land Trust’s 33 employees are evacuated and don’t know if their homes are still standing, and then there are all the other partners and members of the organization whose circumstances are unknown.

“One of the first things we did was reach out to the conservation easement owners and tenants on the preserves. In one case, a staff member living on a property had to flee in the middle of the night.”

Eliot added, “The impact of this has gone through our whole community. Everybody knows someone affected.”

As for the lands, in some spots the fire went through picking off one structure but leaving another intact, a result of the configuration of vegetation, she figures. Other areas likely fared much worse.

“In some areas where the fire went through and obliterated everything, I expect to find a loss of resources and animals,” she said. “It went through the Sonoma Valley wildlife corridor, where we’ve been tracking and documenting animal movement through cameras on mountain lions. We know it’s heavily used by everything in the food chain, and we have no knowledge of the impact on the animals.”

Once the fires are contained , Eliot and others will begin to take stock of the losses and will have some big decisions ahead.

“Are we going to actively start restoring things and replanting, or sit back and watch what happens?” she said. “In some cases the understory burned out and it’s a better situation.”

“All of what we’re talking about is in the context of the bigger human tragedy. This is [what’s] important,” and the land can wait, Eliot said.

About the Author

Alison Hawkes was a Bay Nature editor from 2011-2017. Before Bay Nature she worked in journalism for more than a decade as a former newspaper reporter turned radio producer turned web editor with each rendition bringing her closer to her dream of covering environmental issues. She co-founded Way Out West, a site dedicated to covering Bay Area environmental news.