Hood Mountain and the Magic of Fire Recovery
By Melanie Parker
With the reopening of Hood Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve after the fire of 2020, visitors will be somewhat shocked to see the dramatic changes throughout this park above the Sonoma Valley.
Los Alamos Road entrance to Hood Mountain Regional Park and Preserve
As you reach the high point on Los Alamos road and enter the gate to drive down to the trailhead, you will be met with a very different view than you may remember. Rather than gazing into a sea of tall green forests dotted with open meadows, you will be looking out across hundreds of acres of burned skeleton trees. In the distance you may see expanses of seemingly barren rock along ridgetops and ravines.
Rest assured, there is a forest here. It is just very, very short.
Tiny Sargent cypress seedling
Take some time to look closely. We want to help you identify some of the most important native plants that are reclaiming the park. These little beauties are due to a wide ranging set of strategies that plants have developed in fire-prone ecosystems like the Mayacamas Mountains.
Manzanitas, like this whiteleaf manzanita, put down copious amounts of seed and those seeds are activated to sprout by fire.
Contrast that to our wavy-leafed soap plant, which has a deeply buried large bulb and can use this stored energy to send out new leaves and flowers in the year after fire.
Wavy leaf soap root
Throughout the park you will see regenerating trees, shrubs, grasses and forbs (flower-like plants). It can be fun to try to match what you remember of the plants and what they look like now.
Note too that the park burned in 2017 and then again 2020. The Nuns Fire in 2017 was a moderate intensity burn and impacted mostly the Pythian side of the park. The Glass Fire in 2020 was a high intensity fire that affected mostly the Los Alamos side of the park. There are some areas along the Panorama Trail on the ridge top that were burned and then re-burned three years later.
Map of burned areas in Hood Mountain Regional Park and Preserve after the Nuns Fire (2017), at left, and Glass Fire (2020)
Legacy of fire suppression
The first fire impact to Hood Mountain really came in the form of fire suppression. By removing fire from the landscape for over one hundred years, the park had been getting thicker and thicker with dense forests dominated by Douglas fir. Now, with the return of fire in what was an overstocked condition, we are seeing dramatic changes. Mostly, however, those changes are within the natural range of conditions that these hills have experienced for eons, and we can expect our oak, manzanita, madrone forests to recover.
In general, we allow forests to recover unassisted as native species recolonize after a fire on their own. In a few rare conditions, we support recovery by actively restoring the forest. You will see some active restoration along Panorama Trail, where bulldozers created a large ridgetop firebreak in 2017. Working with partners, we have installed material to slow erosion, capture sediment that would otherwise wash away in a heavy rain and plant into the collected sediment.
Erosion control check dam captures sediments for seedlings to take root
You will also see places where our crews have removed “hazard trees,” defined as those weak enough to likely to pose a threat to visitors hiking the trails. In many cases, those logs are left to provide downed woody debris for habitat and soil health. Where there are too many hazard trees, we chip the material and either scatter it or re-use it for other purposes in the park.
Downed trees and other “hazard trees”
What may happen if we see more fires in Hood? It’s possible that if we get repeat fires at short intervals, we will see much of the forest convert to shrublands dominated by ceanothus, chamise and scrub oaks. Even that, however, is part of nature’s resilience to change.
We hope as you re-enter the park you enjoy the magic of fire recovery in Hood Mountain.
Note: Ongoing work at Hood Mountain is supported by the local Parks for All Measure M sales tax, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Sonoma County Regional Parks Foundation and the Bill and Dave Legacy Fund.
Melanie Parker is deputy director of Sonoma County Regional Parks.
This post was published May 2022.