How has Armstrong Woods recovered almost a year after the Walbridge Fire?

By Katherine MInkiewicz-Martine, Staff Writer, , August 11, 2021

armstrong woods

Though the flames singed the redwoods, they also cleared the understory.

Almost a year after the Walbridge Fire made its way down Austin Creek and into parts of the forest floor of Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, the forest is showing healthy signs of regrowth.

The Walbridge Fire started on Aug. 17, 2020, after a rare summer thunderstorm that was responsible for several large wildfires in the state.

Only days after the fire started, it was at 1,500 acres and growing with no containment.

With decades worth of overgrown brush and dry fuel buildup, the fire wasn’t contained for weeks and it made its way down drainage basins and through the crowns of redwood forests, burning a total of 55,209 acres.

As the fire made its way into Armstrong Woods, fire crews were stationed in and around the park and near the 308-foot Colonel Armstrong tree in an effort to protect the great giant and its neighbors.

While the Walbridge Fire did not impact any structures or iconic trees such as the 1,400-year-old Colonel Armstrong tree, the fire did back its way down through the Austin Creek State Recreation Area through the Bullfrog Pond Campground, causing damage to picnic tables, bathrooms, fencing and trails.

In September 2020, the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods started a donation campaign to raise $100,000 for trail rehabilitation. They also needed funds for replacing fencing, signage, picnic tables and campground infrastructure.

While the park is still closed to the public due to ongoing rehabilitation work, SoCoNews got to tour portions of the park on Aug. 8 to see the area’s fire recovery progress.

Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods Executive Director Michele Luna, Field Operations Manager Scotty Lawyer and Field Operations Assistant Manager Rachel Hallaway led the tour.

As we walked on the trail that meanders to the Colonel Armstrong Tree and the fallen giant, there were signs of life among the various singed trees and blackened redwoods.

On one slope that had burned ferns were growing back up and other local flora dotted the landscape. On the other side of the trail where the slope hadn’t burned, there were thickets of grasses, ferns and other plants, all competing for space and sunlight.

“This is basically what it’s supposed to look like when it has had a healthy amount of fire come through. This hillside used to be completely covered with fern and little bits of tan oak,” Hallaway said, pointing to a nearby slope that was clear of thick underbrush. “You couldn’t see any of it and that (underbrush) doesn’t allow any sunlight to hit the forest floor, so it stunts the growth of things like sorrels, orchids and our other understory plants, so it’s recovering quite nicely as a matter of fact.”

Luna said the fire that went through Armstrong Woods was a healthy fire.

“It’s coming back quite nicely. It’s really quite beautiful,” Luna said.

During the recovery process, 4,000 feet of fencing was put in and 2,200 hazardous trees, most of which were not redwoods, were removed by the California Office of Emergency Services.

Redwood trees are extremely fire resistant due to their thick bark.

“Fire or flood, either one of those two, and these things just go nuts. They really are a hardy tree,” Lawyer said.

According to Lawyer, the last fire that made its way through Armstrong Woods was around 1923 and while the redwoods recovered, the scarring is still evident in dark shades of brown that stripe some of the trees.

Wildlife has also returned to the park and it returned almost immediately after the fire had passed. Hallaway recalled a recent occasion when she was eating her lunch at the park and a small species of squirrel showed up, looking like he wanted to get away with her lunch pail.

According to Luna, the most significant fire damage occurred at the Austin Creek Recreation Area where they have one of their campgrounds.

“There is a lot of wildland that burned of course. Particularly in terms of infrastructure, our campground Bullfrog Pond had significant damage,” Luna told SoCoNews last August.

The Bullfrog Pond Campground also lost about four of its picnic tables. Luna said the other significant issue with infrastructure is damage to one of the restrooms.

Luna said the infrastructure of Armstrong Reserve is intact and the fire was mostly contained to the steep slopes of the forest.

“When you travel through the grove itself there’s a lot that is not burned, but that is on the forest floor itself. They (first responders) did a really good job keeping the fire contained to the upward slopes and so most of what you see in the grove is the slope areas that are burned. I think where it got into the grove itself is more prevalent in that area and is closer to our historic forest theatre,” Luna told SoCoNews.

As fire recovery work continues, the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods continue to ask for donations. After hitting their initial $100,000 goal, they’re now asking for $200,000.

As of Aug. 9, the fundraising campaign had garnered around $120,000. Luna said they hope to be able to open in about a month, however, the date is tentative.

To learn more about the preserve and fire recovery or to donate, visit the Stewards website.