Walking in my Characters’ Footsteps in the Sibley Volcanic Regional Park

One of the advantages of writing about what I know and where I live is that I can walk through the settings for some of my scenes, particularly outdoor scenes.  And I have a fairly lengthy and dramatic series of scenes set in the Berkeley and Oakland hills of the Bay Area.  Today I walked some of the trails and ridges in the Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, taking in the sights and sounds my characters would experience.

Sibley isn’t the crown jewel of the East Bay Regional Parks District, but along with Temescal and Tilden Parks, it’s one of the original parks.  The debris and lava are 10 million years old and has been moved about by the Hayward tectonic fault ever since.  The caldera, buried under soft sedimentary rock for millennia, was exposed due to quarry mining on the site.  To the uneducated eye, the traces of the ancient volcano are invisible and it’s just another beautiful, scenic network of East Bay ridge trails, slightly marred by the old quarry. Although the wildflowers are past their glorious prime, there were still scatterings of California Poppy, wild lavender, and tall thistles to enjoy.

California poppies at Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve
California poppies and wild Lavender nestled in shade at Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve

On my ramble, I walked through a grove of young eucalyptus trees.  Eucalyptus grow incredibly fast and were planted throughout the Bay Area hills in late 19th and early 20th centuries.  I’ve read many stories about how the eucalypts became ubiquitous in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Some of the stories I’ve read and seen are actually false or more legend than truth, such as the tale about most of the eucalyptus in the Oakland Hills being planted after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.  As non-native species, the trees came under scrutiny in the 1980s and 1990s and were blamed for helping the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire spread so quickly and so disastrously.  Some governmental organizations and citizens groups think the blame was largely misplaced.  Many people who fought the fire or fled it recall vividly the sights and sounds of eucalyptus trees engulfed in flames, then exploding and scattering embers and flames during that terrible fire.

This photo of a suburb that burned to the ground during a 2003 San Diego county fire tells an interesting story.

Scripps Ranch, from a NY Times Story
Scripps Ranch, from a NY Times Story

I found the above photo on the Death of a Million Trees blog in an article about the history of the Eucalyptus in California.  The homes on this Scripps Ranch street burned to the ground.  The eucalyptus trees abutting the properties didn’t burn.  Circumstances of terrain, heat and wind speed are difficult to compare between the two fires.

I didn’t plan for this to be an article about eucalyptus in California, but the grove captured my imagination.   They are young-ish trees with trunks approximately 8 to 14 inches in diameter on average.  They are nearly as tall as mature trees, but a mature tree is often 3 or more feet in diameter.  With such slender trunks, I wondered if this grove had been decimated by the Oakland Hills fire and had grown back in the last 24 years.  After returning home and studying maps of the fire, I’ve learned that parts of the park were within the fire perimeter, including the grove I walked through.  Sibley was the site of one of the fire lines that prevented the fire from racing across the ridge and down the hills into Orinda during those terrible three days.

But as I walked through the grove I put aside thoughts of the Oakland Hills fire and opened my senses to the here and now, imagining what my novel’s characters would see, think and notice as they made their way along the trails.  It is a noisy grove.  In the far distance, I could dimly hear the ever present Bay Area freeway noise, but it was almost completely masked by birdsong and by a symphony of curious loud creaks  As the wind blew through the young eucalyptus trees, branches rubbed against one another, and the sound resembled the creaking of poor-fitting doors being opened and closed in an old wood frame house.  East of this grove, the trees become thinner, and the species are native to California – pines, oaks and a few madrone.  The trees thin out until they are nestled and dotted amidst the grassland that covers the ridges between the preserve and Orinda.

My characters will stray no further east than the Sibley eucalyptus grove and its many twins that twine around the ridges running from Berkeley through Hayward.  They will inhale the rich minty aroma of eucalyptus leaves as they pick their way carefully through the rocks and tree roots that break up the trails.  The wind will be a welcome relief on the hot late spring day when they pass through this area.  The creaking sounds will prey on their minds at first, as they search the nearby trees for signs of followers.  Birds will grow silent as they pass, and then take up song once more.

From the East Bay Regional Parks Fans flickr page
From the East Bay Regional Parks Fans flickr page

Right now, my characters won’t see the Mazzariello Labyrinth as they wander through the preserve.  But, I may have to work in a short side trip somehow!  There is a second, heart-shaped labyrinth further into the preserve.  It’s unknown who built it or why, but it’s roughly contemporaneous with the Mazaariello Labyrinth which was built in the 1980’s.  Both are true labyrinths, not mazes.  There is only one path to the center.

On the drive to the preserve, I passed a vista point that looks out directly over Oakland to the huge cranes at the port, the Bay Bridge and beyond to San Francisco.  It’s an iconic scene.  I’ve toyed with the idea, but I decided today, that the view needs to be on the cover of The Gideon Effect.  Someday when the air is so clear that the sky is a sharp crystalline blue I will return with my dSLR camera and a tripod and take photographs until I have just the right image for the story.

I could buy an image from a stock photo site, but the Bay Area spoke to me today, saying “Do it yourself.  I’ll be here when you’re ready.

In the meanwhile, I’ll leave you with the picture I took with the point-and-shoot today.

Bay Bridge and San Francisco on a not-so-clear day
Bay Bridge and San Francisco on a not-so-clear day

3 thoughts on “Walking in my Characters’ Footsteps in the Sibley Volcanic Regional Park”

  1. Thank you for publishing the link to the Million Trees blog. Here are a couple more references about the role of eucalyptus in the 1991 Oakland wildfire that may interest you. This is a link to the opinion of a prominent fire scientist at the US Forest Service fire science laboratory: https://milliontrees.me/2016/05/06/fire-scientist-says-eucalyptus-did-not-burn-with-high-intensities-leading-to-home-destruction/
    And here is a collection of quotes of fire survivors of the 1991 wildfire which indicate that eucalyptus was not more involved in that fire than any other tree species: https://milliontrees.me/2010/05/05/the-power-of-a-legend/

    1. Thanks for the additional information! One of my fondest and earliest memories of living in California is about the first time we drove in Marin county from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach Our car windows were down, and we were suddenly enveloped in an amazing minty scent as we drove by the Green Gulch Farm Zen center on Shoreline Highway. It was my first encounter with eucalyptus trees, and I didn’t learn what kind of trees they were until a few weeks later.

      I’ve been sad about their status as a now unwanted non-native species but had assumed the “common knowledge” about their role in the Oakland Hills fire was accurate.

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