Restoration inches forward at Boggs Mountain forest burned by Valley fire
At first glance, the dusty hillside on the north side of this Lake County massif appears barren except for charcoaled stumps, a sprinkling of fire-blackened trees and some sprouting brush.
Closer examination at ground level, however, reveals recovery is underway across nearly 3,500 acres of state forest, almost all of which was torched by the Valley fire on its destructive tear two years ago through rural neighborhoods and communities south of Clear Lake.
The fire killed more than 80 percent of the trees here in September 2015.
Across the region, it burned 76,067 acres, destroyed 1,281 homes and killed at least four people, with a fifth person missing and believed dead.
Boggs Mountain Demonstration State Forest, a once-verdant retreat for campers, hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers - and a working laboratory for foresters and botanists - has been closed ever since. Its campsites were scarred, its trails covered by debris and the torched trees that did not fall - loggers call them “widowmakers” - presented such a hazard to visitors that officials deemed it too big a risk.
But now a rebirth is taking root. Spaced at 13-foot intervals here are thousands of delicate, 8-inch seedlings - Douglas fir, ponderosa pine and sugar pine - that Cal Fire officials hope will restore the decimated landscape. Some 312,000 conifer seedlings were planted across 1,250 acres in March, about a third of what is to come over the next two years, said the forest’s manager, Peter Leuzinger.
“It’s going to take some time” for the newly planted trees to make a visible difference,” he said, adding it will be a decade before the conifers reach up to 10 feet in height.
“Then you would really start to see them,” Leuzinger said.
Already visible throughout the property are pink-leaved black oaks and spiky live oaks, which are making a vigorous comeback without human help. Some may even need to be removed in the future to prevent them from crowding out the conifers.
Other plants cropping up on their own include native bracken ferns, coffeeberry, wild rose, squaw carpet, yerba buena, wild iris, dogwood and madrone, along with non-native, invasive Scotch broom.
The forest offers a glimpse at the slow healing that is taking place on natural and developed landscapes in southern Lake County, which endured a horrific, drought-fueled 2015 fire season capped by the Valley fire, the third-most destructive wildfire in state history.
The nightmare continued last year when officials said an arsonist struck a blaze that burned through the town of Lower Lake, destroying 300 structures, including homes and businesses.
Dead trees logged
Of the homes destroyed in the Valley fire, only 97 have been rebuilt so far, including a duplex. About 335 building permits for homes have been issued, according to the county, indicating the rebuilding is picking up steam. There also are tens of thousands of trees being planted on private property throughout the burned area.
The restoration process at Boggs Mountain forest is perhaps the most aggressive of them all, with more than just newly planted trees to show for months of work. It has included road repairs and the logging of thousands of dead trees.
Those with value as lumber have been sold and the barren ground beneath them prepared for replanting.
It takes a year of planning for each of the plantings, which are conducted during the rainy season to give the trees a better chance at survival, Leuzinger said.
Until two weeks ago, the unmarketable felled trees were being burned, but high winds and then hot weather put a stop to the practice until the next rain, Leuzinger said.
Meanwhile, excavators are gathering dead trees into future burn piles and hand crews are clearing brush in what had been camping areas.
More standing trees likely will need to be cut in the future, Leuzinger said. Some survived the fire but now are being killed by a beetle infestation that plagued the forest prior to the fire, Leuzinger said.
Before the blaze, Boggs Mountain attracted thousands of visitors each year.
The most loyal enthusiasts are eager to resume their outings, but Leuzinger said he can’t say when the forest will reopen
Forest still unsafe
Hazards, including dead and falling trees, heavy equipment and unstable debris remain throughout the property.
“It just isn’t safe,” Leuzinger said.
The tiny trees also need some time. They could be trampled if visitors don’t stay on the roads and trails, Leuzinger said. At this time, the forest doesn’t have the staffing to ensure that people follow those rules.
Supporters of Boggs Mountain say they understand forest officials’ concerns and are content they are moving as fast as they can to get the land back in use.
“I think they’re making good progress. I’m perfectly satisfied with what they’re doing,” said David Thiessen, president of Friends of Boggs Mountain, a volunteer group of about 60 that helps build and maintain trails and erect signs.
The group is fundraising and plans to start rebuilding trails as soon as they’re allowed.
“We’re hopeful by next year, but that’s just us,” Thiessen said.
Still, once the trails are reopened and the public welcomed, visitors should expect a landscape transformed, Thiessen warned.
“It’s going to be a long time” before it looks like a forest again, Thiessen said. “Another generation.”
You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 707-462-6473 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MendoReporter.