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CEO Update: Skylark Ranch and Butano Creek Photo Updates

Photo Updates on Camp Skylark Ranch and Camp Butano Creek

Dear Members and Friends,

I am writing this update for those of you who want to stay informed about our Santa Cruz Mountain camps: Skylark Ranch and Butano Creek. As we learn about our camps, we also are sending love and support for communities mourning the loss of lives, homes, and livelihoods during this year’s devastating wildfires.

Camp Skylark Ranch

Our Chief Mission Delivery Officer, Michelle McCormick, Site Manager, Jim Gust, and Skylark Ranch Ranger, Juan Rodriguez, and I visited Camp Skylark Ranch last Friday under smokey skies, with a team of forest experts who are familiar with these camps, because they have been working with us to develop long-term plans for forest health.

During this visit I experienced gratitude and relief, sadness and hope: gratitude for the fire crews and relief at seeing the center of camp standing—the main buildings, our beautiful green meadow, and our redwoods; sadness at seeing other areas of camp that suffered major fire damage, and hope because we already are seeing new signs of life springing forth from the ashes.

I am thankful that my first visit to the camp was with forest experts. It was helpful to hear their assurances that the forest will recover and their explanations of what we can do now to care for the forest. Most of our beautiful redwoods will flourish again, and Fern Grove will recover. This can be hard to believe when you see the immediate aftermath of the fire. This is what Fern Grove looked like on September 11, 2020

For those of us who cherish redwood forests, this is devastating to see. However, our foresters assured us, the redwoods will recover, and Fern Grove will recover. When we looked closely, just three weeks after the fire, we already could see new beginnings—redwood sorrel and ferns emerging from the ashes.

We must give the forest time to recover.  Our forest experts advised us to focus first on assessing and protecting our roads from erosion and falling trees, and also encouraged us to give the forest as much time as possible to recover before making decisions about which trees to remove for safety reasons. As next steps, in addition to working with our insurance company, we will continue to work with our forestry team, conservation partners, and civil engineers to ensure that our road is safe and to develop a plan for near-term erosion control. Matt, a forest health specialist from the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County, explained that each footstep in the ash potentially disrupts the native plant seeds that will emerge in the aftermath of the fire. We already can see evidence of seeds bursting from the cones of the charred knob cone pine trees. Soon, we will see new tree seedlings. Matt encouraged us to tread lightly and protect the native seeds as the forest returns to health.

Different parts of the forest will recover in different ways and at different times. Part of what makes Skylark Ranch so beautiful is the wide range of ecosystems and microclimates. Each ecosystem will respond to the fire in different ways. While the redwoods are built to withstand fire, with their very thick bark, Douglas fir, manzanitas, and knob cone pine, are less able to withstand fire, and these trees regenerate through seeds and/or root systems. Our forestry team emphasized that if we can wait a while and avoid rushing to remove potential hazard trees, we may be able to save more trees. Sadly, the fire burned intensely in horse county, and this area will need to be off-limits until we are able to assess the condition of the horse country trees.

We do still have beautiful areas and trees at the center of camp. When you see evidence of the ferocious fire that roared up Whitehouse Canyon Road and around our camp, it is amazing that firefighters were able to save our main buildings. You can see here, the singing logs, and health center, office and art building. If you look closely you will see the burned trees right behind the building.

In the picture below, you can see over the ruins of our staff house and through the burned trees, the back side of the office and the dining hall beyond. The firefighters also were able to save the shower house.

Random sights. It was strange to walk through camp and see the random nature of the fire. In this unit, the tin roofs are all that remain of two cabins, burned to the ground, while the cabin uphill is still standing. In horse country and Fern Grove, we saw lots of grey ash—the fire burned so hot, that tree needles disintegrated. In this area, you can see that tree needles have fallen from the trees and are carpeting the ash.

Strangely, almost all of the unit signs survived, even for units that burned to the ground, and so did almost all of the wood trash and recycling bins at each unit. Even our forester was mystified.

We also saw a lot of evidence that porcelain explodes when it gets hot. The biffies throughout camp look like they exploded, because they did:

We have a journey ahead, and we need to be patient as we figure out next steps. Our Program and Outdoor Program team is already exploring opportunities to work with partners to engage girls to learn about forest health and recovery.

It definitely is NOT SAFE to visit Skylark Ranch. The road is not in good shape, and we are not going to rush to remove hazard trees. We will, instead, give the forest time to heal before we make decisions about trees that we must remove for camper safety. We will keep you posted as we are able to confirm road safety and establish areas of Camp Skylark Ranch that are safe to re-open.

Camp Butano Creek

After our visit to Skylark Ranch, Jim Gust, our Camp Butano Creek Site Manager, walked Michelle McCormick and me through this camp. Jim has access rights to this closed area, because he has been producing water for the firefighters. Jim explained that the wind-whipped fire tore through Camp Skylark Ranch in a matter of hours, while at Butano the fire burned low and slow and took six days to burn to the fire lines established right next to our buildings. The fire is still burning – with smoldering and even flaming tree stumps. During our visit, Jim put out this spot fire.

The main challenge at Butano Creek will be preventing erosion and slides on the steep canyon walls. We have trees down and damaged root structures. We will work with our forestry experts to assess next steps for the damaged trees.

Last but not least, we are fortunate to have passionate and talented staff who care deeply about these camps. (Pictured, here, Michelle McCormick, Chief Mission Delivery Officer, Butano Creek Site Manager, Jim Gust and Skylark Ranch Ranger, Juan Rodriguez.) Michelle will oversee the recovery process for Skylark and Butano. Jim and Juan will focus next on getting generators to both camps so they can start to restore the water systems, and then they will turn to the roads and erosion control, in collaboration with our forest and engineering experts. Our CFO, Leinani Malig, will lead work on insurance recovery, and our Program and Outdoor Program Team, led by our Chief Program Officer, Mary-Jane Strom, is already developing ideas about ways to create new and expanded outdoor experiences for girls at our existing camps and beyond.

I suspect for many of you, this update was hard to read, and the pictures were hard to see. I hope it also helps to know that our beautiful forests will recover, and we are working with knowledgeable partners.

With gratitude for the firefighters, our conservation partners, and each of you. Please stay safe during these challenging times.

Yours in Girl Scouting,

Marina H. Park, CEO
Girl Scouts of Northern California

 Support Our Camp Properties

Donations to our camp investment campaign will support recovery efforts at Camp Skylark Ranch, including debris removal, infrastructure repairs, forest management, and work to reduce erosion during winter rains. Recovery will take time, and your donation also will help GSNorCal expand outdoor program areas and camper capacity at remaining camps while we figure out our plan and timeline for Skylark Ranch.