Someday in the summer, nature-lovers may step foot into the Armstrong Woods state park, but they weren’t able to in time for Memorial Day weekend this year, according to Michele Luna, executive director of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods.
The Walbridge Fire last August burned over half the acreage of both Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve and Austin Creek State Recreation Area, co-managed by the Stewards and the California State Parks — over 4,300 acres between them in total, Luna said in a May 28 email.
She said Austin Creek is closed indefinitely, but “we hope to reopen sometime this fall, but there are no guarantees,” in her email.
“In terms of the work that the Stewards and State Parks are responsible for, we are ready to reopen. However, it’s the work that has to be done by outside contractors that is holding up the reopening at this point in time,” Luna said.
The Stewards and the State Parks heaved ho to get Armstrong’s forest floor restored for visitors to return, but hazardous debris and tree removal remain that can only be done by outside contractors through the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), she said.
In April, the Stewards announced on their website the prediction that visitors would be able to return by Memorial Day weekend.
On May 21, Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods announced the reopening delay on Facebook, with contractors still removing hazardous debris in the past weeks and then the Office of Emergency Services removing the remaining dangerous trees in both parks.
“The issue is that the staging for these big projects, both the debris removal and the hazardous tree removal, requires large trucks and large equipment that are having to use the parking lots of Armstrong to stage,” Luna said. “And that means it wouldn’t be safe for park visitors to also be utilizing those parking lots or to be in and around while that work is being done and these large trucks are moving in and out of the park.”
Most of the hazardous debris is from park facilities that burned, including some park staff residential property, according to Luna. Hazardous debris removal is “finished up to a point,” but there is one residence outside the park's borders that must be accessed via the park and requires road repairs before the debris removal can be complete.
Meanwhile, CAL OES is marking many trees for removal, especially in Austin Creek, but enough in Armstrong to delay its reopening. The executive director said she did not want to guess how many hazardous trees have been marked in the parks because she does not know, but there seemed to be “way more than we thought it was going to be.”
Stewards and State Parks work to restore the valley floor together
The Stewards and State Parks have been busy in the nine months since the fires. Cooperation is strong between the two, Luna said, meeting regularly to report on their fire recovery efforts focused first on the valley floor of Armstrong Redwoods.
In a May 28 email, the executive director spoke of their collaboration and “the amazing dedication of our volunteers” to prepare for an Armstrong Redwoods reopening to the best of their abilities.
Hundreds of trees that came down in the fire or were hazardous enough to require removal were stacked high in the Armstrong Redwoods picnic, she said. Primarily Stewards volunteers and staff processed it into firewood, she said, to be sold at coastal campgrounds and in time, the Bullfrog Pond Campground when it reopens.
Luna said State Parks staff aided in “hauling some of the large trees out of the way” and assessed the trails and park conditions for safety.
“There were still a lot of root fires going on for quite a long time. In fact, I’ve even heard of some more recent flare ups during some recent wind events,” she said, managed by environmental scientist staff from State Parks.
Trail safety and restoring utilities and water systems went into State Parks’ hands, while the Stewards focused on re-establishing fencing that had burned or aged enough to replace, according to Luna.
Clean-up was another feat, she said, “even just cleaning up the buildings that have a lot of soot and ash in and around them, clearing around the buildings, restoring facilities, the restrooms, cleaning up the signage, all of that.” She finished, “There’s just a lot of clean-up that had to be done.”
Roughly 70 community members came out for Earth Day to help with clean-up projects, “a lot of brush removal,” and State Parks executed a prescribed burn to manage more areas, according to Luna.
“What was really fortunate is the fire that happened in the grove itself was a healthy fire, actually,” Luna said. “That still didn’t mean there wasn’t infrastructure that was destroyed that had to be restored.”
Meanwhile, upland trails and most of the Austin Creek SRA restoration work awaits, she said, including restoring utilities, water and communication systems and rebuilding a campground restroom. “There’s a lot of work that has to be done up at the campground at Bullfrog Pond. That’s going to take us a while to get done.”
Restoring the parks without the usual revenue
The flames have cost Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods financially. Part of the Stewards’ role in co-managing the parks is to collect entrance fees and manage visitor services in both parks.
According to the Stewards’ website, the revenue from day-use fees, camping fees and visitor center sales that fund their efforts are at a standstill, under the closure.
“Our insurance has helped us in part, so that has been helpful. We also were impacted by COVID, of course and from COVID, we were able to secure two PPP loans, so that helped us,” Luna said. “But from the fire standpoint, the loss of revenue from day use has been significant, and camping fees as well.”
Since August, the Stewards have lost around $110,000 in day-use fees and about $89,000 in camping fees, altogether nearly $200,000 in revenue, Luna said in a May 27 email.
In the meantime, Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods have set up a fire recovery fund that has gathered $170,000 in donations, she said, with a link provided on their website.
While an insurance carrier reimbursed some of the losses, the company informed the Stewards that their policy won’t be renewed next year, she said. According to Luna, finding another insurer will not impact the park reopenings and their insurance broker is positive they will find another carrier, but it’s possible that the rates will be higher and for different coverage.
Armstrong Redwoods a sight to behold in due time
Since the Walbridge Fire blazed 68% of its acres, the Armstrong Redwoods is “actually looking really beautiful,” Luna said, with a lot of clean-up and new fencing. The woods have grown quieter without visitors, so more wildlife is roaming about, she said, but the restoration and traffic in the past month has been noisy.
“And the wildflowers have been very beautiful this year. We’re finding a lot of flowers are coming up that we haven’t seen in the past in these locations because of the fire. But all the upland trails have been closed because they haven't been rehabilitated yet,” she said. “The burned areas you can see, but it’s more in the back of the park.”
Luna said that those who know the park well will notice the burns from Colonel Armstrong Tree to the Icicle Tree to the large picnic area. “It’s along that ridgeline there, that hillside that goes along there, that’s where you’re going to notice it the most,” she said.