Fire ‘best thing’ for Angel Island

One year ago Monday, hundreds of acres of Angel Island erupted in flames, threatening the island’s historic buildings, endangering campers who were spending the night on the island, and creating a fiery vista for waterfront onlookers around the Bay.

Today, instead of looking back on that fire as a catastrophe, Angel Island’s lead park ranger Dave Matthews sees it as entirely the opposite.

“That was, naturally, the best thing that’s happened to the island in the last 100 years,” he said. “Naturally, fires are good. If we were able to do prescribed fire, we probably would have burned most of that area over the last 20 years anyway.”

Fires are an essential part of nature’s cycle, he explained, but it’s been difficult to perform controlled burns on the island because of the expense as well as air quality ­concerns.

Although the unexpected burn was somewhat more expensive than a controlled burn might have been — it cost the state an estimated $850,000 —  it had a positive effect on the island’s ecosystem, according to Matthews.

The brush fire, which started about 9 p.m. on a breezy Sunday night, burned more than half of the 740-acre state park. One of the island’s 120 structures burned — a nonhistoric abandoned water tower. It took more than 400 firefighters from Marin County fire departments, Cal Fire, and the California State Parks to contain the fire.

The island was evacuated of 29 campers and about 20 workers and their families.

Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said the case remains opened, although he wouldn’t confirm whether they are still actively investigating the incident.

Last year, a source close to the investigation said it looked as though a child may have been responsible for the blaze. If the investigation concluded that was the case, the child’s parents could be on the hook for the bill for the fire — the better part of a million dollars.

Matthews said at this point, you have to look pretty hard to find damage caused by the fire.

“Most of the island you can’t even tell there was a fire anymore. We did lose a few trees, but a lot of them recovered,” he said.

kworth@sfexaminer.com

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