Sonoma parks: ‘Scorched earth and baked soil’

Outdoor recreation puts Sonoma Valley high on the livability index, but this week's fires have shown the dark side of living close to nature.

State parks including Sugarloaf Ridge in Kenwood and Jack London near Glen Ellen have been in the thick of it, as have Sonoma County's Hood Mountain and Sonoma Valley regional parks.

The fate of these regions vary, but common to all are stories of heroic human efforts in the face of natural disaster, with lives saved and precious environments salvaged – as well as heart-breaking loss.

Sugarloaf Ridge is one of the Valley's signature natural areas, and at press time the park itself seems to have escaped with little damage. But the only access leading up to it, Adobe Canyon Road, has lost several homes, though the residents were safely evacuated, thanks in large measure to the quick action of park director John Roney.

Late Sunday night, as the winds picked up, Roney was told there were power lines and a tree down blocking Adobe Canyon Road. He called the Kenwood Fire Department, but they told him they had six fires to deal with, and weren't sure when they'd get to Adobe Canyon. Realizing the growing gravity of the situation, Roney knew he had to take care of it himself.

“When we got to Adobe Canyon, there were fires on both sides of the highway,” Roney said. “We were able to squeeze past the tree, and head up to the park to tell campers they should get out because there was a fire coming.”

Returning to the tree with chainsaws were Bill Seiffert and other campground staff, who cleared the obstruction – the downed wires were telephone lines, not power lines – but by then the fire department was telling everyone to evacuate. He drove back up the road, horn honking to alert the residents, and with campground staffer Julie Meyers got all the campers and Robert Ferguson Observatory staff to flee.

On the way back down, he met state park ranger Erin Bram from Annadel who helped him knock on doors all the way down Adobe Canyon Road, telling people to get out. They finished about 4:45 a.m. Monday.

Several homes on the road in the low-lying area, in the first mile or so of the canyon on the right side leading into the park, were lost to fire that day, said Roney.

As far as the park itself, a slow-moving fire was at the top of Sugarloaf Ridge, on the north side of the park, but it was difficult to see its progress because of smoke, said Roney on Wednesday.

Not faring as well was the Audubon Canyon Ranch's Bouverie Preserve, the 535-acre estate outside of Glen Ellen. According to Audubon communications manager Wendy Coy, “We're eager to survey it but, at a glance, there are areas that were low-severity burns – some that we prepped earlier in the year with pile burns and 17 acres of controlled burns – and other areas that appeared to be high-severity burns.”

But the buildings on the property were for the most part lost. This includes the Gilman Hall Education Center which was a total loss, plus staff housing for three families and other office space.

Only two buildings were saved from the flames: former owner David Bouverie's Old World manor, and the more modest cottage known as MFK Fisher's Last House. “Quick-thinking efforts on the part of Sasha Berleman, our fire ecologist, and a couple of neighbors and relatives helped to save David's house and Last House,” said Coy. The neighbors included Kevin Olson and Conny Gustafsson.

Last House has been undergoing renovation to return it to the place the food writer spent the last 20 years of her life. Ironically, a fundraising dinner had been held just the night before the fire – at Ramekins, in Sonoma, which the next day became an emergency shelter for displaced Valley residents.

On Thursday, Berleman said she had walked the property and found the entire 535 acres had been swept by fire, but the controlled burns that ACR did in May in conjunction with Cal Fire and other county fire departments had a positive effect in reducing damage from this week's conflagration. Those areas were of low-severity burns; the trees remained standing and will drop acorns to provide food for small animals and birds, and even now provide “safe haven” for the wildlife of Bouverie Preserve. Berleman said she saw lots of deer, birds and the ever-present lizards of the Mayacamas in these areas.

“I have no doubt that if we had been able to do a controlled burn in the canyon, as we planned to do next year, the buildings would still be standing,” she said. As it is, she characterized the condition of the canyon as a high-severity burn, with “scorched earth and baked soil.”

Bouverie is also the headquarters for the ACR Mountain Lion Project, which has collared and is now tracking a number of Sonoma Valley cougars. Quinton Martins, the project director, has been out of the area, but Berleman said current tracking information from radio collars shows all tagged cougars are still on the move, a good sign.

Just down the road, Quarryhill Botanical Center fared much better. Though access to Quarryhill was difficult because of ongoing fire hazard and road closure, director Bill McNamara said a staffer managed to hike in and survey the 40-acre property.

“He found that all the buildings were intact, including our home, but there were small spot fires on the property,” said McNamara. Apparently, “the fire burned right to the fence on the north and east side and then stopped.”

Even the 25-acre main garden area was only slightly damaged, with its rare collection of Asian plants grown from seed in the property's greenhouses, and overall Quarryhill escaped major damage, as of Wednesday.

“But surrounding Quarryhill everything was burned to the ground,” said McNamara. “Quarryhill is a green oasis in a sea of ash.”

Remarkably, Jack London State Historic Park, just outside of Glen Ellen, also escaped significant damage, said Executive Director Tjiska Van Wyk. “On Monday, despite the risks, State Park rangers arrived to take irreplaceable London memorabilia from cottage and museum. Neil Shepard, John Serres and others have been roaming the park along with Cal Fire, looking for hot spots and putting them out before they spread.”

“This has been an extraordinary community response to a horrific situation,” added Van Wyk, noting that “the heroic efforts of individuals have given us all hope that fires will be contained soon.”

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