“It was a low and slow fire behind the campgrounds,” says John Roney, overworked director of Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. He points into the shadows of the west side of the canyon, just past the now-closed park’s entry kiosk and visitors center. “We lost a couple benches, picnic tables, a storage shed and two outhouses.”
The two outhouses were both women’s – the men’s sheds standing nearby were undamaged, their yellow paint barely blistered.
Roney, along with a handful of volunteers from Team Sugarloaf – a partnership of five nonprofits overseeing the park – had to evacuate 12 campsites in the early morning hours of Oct. 9, and there are still a couple black bags of campers’ left-behind possessions in the cluttered but closed visitors center. About 36 people were evacuated as the fire raced up Adobe Canyon Road that morning; but the real damage started four days later, when an arm of the Nuns Fire reached northwest to ignite the grasslands and groves of Sugarloaf Ridge.
By Oct. 15, almost the entire length of the Mayacamas was engaged, including Hood Mountain Regional Park to the north side of Sugarloaf. The fires only stopped growing on Oct. 15, though full containment was still two weeks away.
Since 2010, Team Sugarloaf has been running the state park, keeping its services going with day-use and camp fees, looking to Sacramento only for road maintenance and back-country service. Roney’s own background is, as he says, “in business and the military.” Which gives him the take-care-of-it attitude that has helped manage the park’s reaction to the fire’s approach, and the park’s response in its wake.
The Robert Ferguson Observatory on Sugarloaf was virtually surrounded by fire on Oct. 14, but saved. Its newest features – a 20-inch Ritchey-Chretien telescope and a 40-inch telescope mirror installed less than two years ago – were evacuated from the park on Oct. 12, two days before the fires attacked Sugarloaf with a vengeance.
Burned grasses and trees come to within 20 feet of the observatory, and the hillsides behind it are the now-familiar sienna of charred oak canopy.
Further down the Meadow Trail, Roney points to the rubble of a broken sign, formerly indicating the “red planet” on the trail’s Planet Walk for area amateur astronomers and hikers..
“Mars was bulldozed by Cal Fire,” Roney says. The Planet Walk replicates the solar system, in scale, from the sun at the observatory to the distant planets, over a trail more than two miles long. A mile further is another burned sign, which may have signaled Saturn.
The trail ends at the exposed girders of a once-wooden bridge over upper Sonoma Creek. It’s not yet repaired for foot traffic, let alone Roney’s pickup truck.
“We don’t know the status of the outer planets, no one’s been out there – Neptune through Pluto is a mystery,” says Roney matter-of-factly.
On the way up Bald Mountain Road toward the park’s highest point, the road is bumpy and pot-holed – sure signs that a major conflagration just swept across the 4,000-acre park. It wasn’t a complete burn – there are stands of green in the midst of the orange and black forests, and perennial grasses are beginning to green the ashen savannah.
But there’s no escaping the fact that this is the scene of a disaster.
Sugarloaf Ridge State Park is closed until further notice. It suffered about 74 percent damage from the fire, 3,328 acres of the park’s total of 3,900. Several small structures including bridges and outhouses were lost.
The park has an informational page about the fire at www.sonomaecologycenter.org/fire-recovery.
“Sugarloaf Rising,” billed as a “gathering of friends” of Sugarloaf, will be held at Landmark Vineyards, 101 Adobe Canyon Rd, just off Highway 12 beneath the charred silhouette of Sugarloaf Peak. It starts at 6:30 and includes a food and wine reception; donations are $35, available online at brownpapertickets.com/event/3185426.