Sugarloaf Ridge State Park begins its slow recovery from fire

Park manager John Roney looks across the Stern Ranch property toward Hood Mountain Regional Park, which like Sugarloaf Ridge suffered extreme fire damage in October, 2017. Neither park is expected to reopen in the forseeable future. (Christian Kallen/Index-Tribune)


“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.

Meanwhile, Roney continues to moniter the status of California Conservation Corps crews clearing out culverts and roadside ditches in preparation for whatever rains lay in store this winter. If it rains as much as it did last year – over 15 inches by Dec. 31 – Roney expects flashfloods, landslides, road slippage and other damage, primarily in the 74 percent of the park afflicted by fire.

So far, only about four inches have fallen this season, but Roney remains guarded. “The worst is yet to come,” he says.

From the observation area at the top of Bald Mountain, at 2,728 feet, one can see Mt. Diablo more than 50 miles away; Sonoma Mountain is closer, just nine miles in the distance. Most of the Sonoma Valley is hidden behind the near ridges of the Mayacamas, though you can look down toward Oakmont and the Napa Valley.

Hood Mountain Regional Park was also severely burned and, while there are wide swaths of charred terrain, the recent rains have brought grasses and green, and some groves survived intact.

To the southwest, less than half a mile across a canyon, the high-tech transceivers of an AT&T microwave relay station sit on a hilltop. They were undamaged – extra crew may have been dispatched to keep the facility safe, Roney suggests.

“We’re not going to be hiking any time soon there at Hood Mountain,” Bill Myers had said a few days earlier. He’s half of the Bill and Dave’s Hikes team that regularly leads groups on hikes at Hood, Sugarloaf, Trione-Annadel and other area parks – most of which suffered fire damage.

“We’re trying to get permission to lead a hike into areas that are safe and still give people a view of the magnitude of the fire,” Myers said. So far, Roney has not been able to make that happen.

No matter what Myers or Roney might like to see, it’s up to the state Parks Department to decide when hikers will be allowed back on its trails. Until then, hikers like Myers will be spending a lot of hiking time at Jack London State Historic Park, which escaped the fires – though he and Dave Chalk hope to lead a hike on the unburned trails of Trione-Annadel on Jan. 13.

Meanwhile Roney and his colleagues at the Sonoma Ecology Center – the lead partner in Team Sugarloaf and the nonprofit charged with operating the park – are focusing their efforts on the Emergency Watershed Protection Program, cleaning up ash and debris, laying down wattles and taking other action to keep possibly toxic pollutants out of the Valley’s creeks.

Part of their effort is necessarily public outreach, and the next opportunity is on Wednesday, Dec. 6, at an event called “Sugarloaf Rising – a gathering of friends.” Both Roney and SEC’s Richard Dale will give updates on the status of the damage to the park, and plans to rebuild it. They’ll also remind people that fire is a natural part of the California ecosystem, and letting the land heal itself is often the best response.

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