Article and photos courtesy of Tim Walsh, Fire Crew Superintendent, Marin County Fire Department
Angel Island State Park is one of the most beautiful places in the Bay Area if not the world! From this land mass surrounded by water, one can see the entire bay. From the Golden Gate, the City skyline, the Marin Headlands, or the East Bay, views are spectacular and ever changing!
As the sun rises and sets, colors reflect from sky and water changing from cool and misty to warm and fiery. But fire can and has changed the landscape! The Island has burned twice since 2005. In 2005, a fire starting at a campground burned down to the water on the east side of the island threatening historic structures. Although it burned less than 30 acres, it was a glimpse of things to come.
In 2008, at approximately 9 o’clock in the evening, a fire was discovered burning on the northeast side of the island. It was burning under a north wind with a high rate of speed. The fire continued to burn until the next morning when it was finally contained adjacent to Camp Reynolds.
The fire burned 304 acres of the 740-acre island. A historic water tank was the only structure destroyed during the fire.
The Marin County Fire Department’s Tamalpais Fire Crew (TFC) was one of the first crews to battle the Angle Island Fire. Working with a Marin County fire engine crew, they ignited vegetation to remove it prior to the fire burning the historic structures located on the East Garrison.
TFC continued to battle the blaze and finally were able to place a containment line on the southeast side of the island between the cliffs and Perimeter Road. Fireboats from the Southern Marin and Tiburon Fire Departments shot water to stop the fire as it burned along the cliffs. Aircraft from CAL FIRE dropped water and retardant from both helicopters and airplanes. Over 200 firefighters from throughout Marin County and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection worked throughout the night and the next day to fully contain the fire.
After the fire was contained, the Tam Crew continued to work on the island to fall hazardous trees and make sure the fire was fully extinguished.
Eucalyptus Trees-Removal may have saved Historic Structures
By the mid 1980s, there were approximately 86 acres of blue gum eucalyptus on the 740-acre Angel Island State Park. The military had planted small groves, from the 1870s to the 1930s; amounting to 24 acres. These original groves had expanded as new eucalyptus seedlings invaded native plant communities and began to dominate large portions of the landscape.
The California Department of Parks and Recreation has removed several hundred eucalyptus trees. Beginning in 1996, after 10 years of planning for the project, 80 acres of eucalyptus removal was complete.
As seen from fire-scarred stumps throughout the park, the 304-acre fire of 2008 burned through some of the areas where tree removal occurred. Had the trees been in place, the outcome may have been much different.
Burning Amongst Historic Structures
Pile burning always involves risk. Risk is managed by reducing the opportunity for flying embers to ignite the forest. Igniting the forest is one issue, igniting a historic structure is entirely another! The piles on this project were located at Camp Reynolds, a preserved Civil War military installation with several structures throughout the work site. Structures include the officer quarters (circa 1867), the mule barn, and the Bake House all stood within feet of the piles.
At first glance, it appeared that this was an impossible task with unacceptable risk. But the Tamalpais Fire Crew worked with the California State Parks to implement a plan that was safe and effective. Weather conditions were closely monitored and a spot weather forecast was prepared daily by the National Weather Service for the burn site.
To ensure safety to the structures, hose lines were put in place to protect them and pre-treat them with water prior to ignition. Next, each group of piles also had a hose line in place to extinguish the pile if the winds suddenly changed direction. Lastly, if the piles were to close for comfort, the Parks supplied an equipment operator and skid steer tractor to move the piles to a safer location.
This vegetation management project is the perfect example of government agencies working together to lower the cost and loss from wildland fires. A collaboration between the California Department of Parks and Recreation, Marin County Fire Department, California Conservation Corps, and the Tiburon Fire Department, that resulted in a successful implementation of a project that helps protect the island from the next wildland fire!