‘It will be beautiful again’: how California’s redwood forest is recovering after last year’s wildfires
There are spots inside Big Basin Redwoods state park that appear to be frozen in time.
Roughly 10 months after the CZU Complex fire burned 97% of California’s oldest park, some trees still smoke and smolder. An open champagne bottle sits untouched atop a scorched picnic table alongside cooking utensils that are melted and singed together. Contents from a toppled cooler, left agape, have begun to blend into the forest duff. The skeletons of burnt cars and trucks are still parked in front of once-iconic headquarters, now reduced to rubble.
But, amid the wreckage, there are also signs of rebirth. Wildflowers are growing over charred debris. Blackened trees have sprung vibrant green sprouts. Birdsongs and hammering woodpeckers accent the hum of state-run construction crews working to ready the beloved park for a new chapter in its history.
“The biggest loss is the human side. This park is not going to be the same place that I saw as a little girl,” says Joanne Kerbavaz, a senior environmental scientist with California state parks on a tour of the park this week. “But as an ecologist, part of me is thrilled by the opportunity to watch how the redwood forest recovers.”
Big Basin is home to roughly 4,400 acres (1,780 hectares) of old-growth redwood trees, majestic giants that are among the oldest living things on Earth. Their lifespan can stretch beyond 2,000 years and they have adapted to survive and thrive in California’s Mediterranean fire-prone climate.
After being heavily logged in the 1800s, the Sempervirens Fund, a non-profit group, formed to protect the trees in 1900 and two years later Big Basin was created – California’s first state park – so millions of people from around the world could travel to marvel at them.
Just like the redwoods, Big Basin, too, will survive this fire. But when it reopens, it will look different. Along with new structures and facilities, many of the park’s 80 miles (128km) of trails will have to be newly carved into the rewilded landscape with new bridges, steps and railings built to support them.
“We have the opportunity to reimagine how to interact with this park,” Kerbavaz says. There are discussions around how to rebuild the park back, to be even more accessible for generations to come. Attitudes have changed over the last 119 years and the park, like others across the US, has exploded in popularity. The climate is also changing, adding new pressures and threats to the ecosystems.
“There is going to be a very robust planning process,” she adds, acknowledging the range of views about how old-growth forests should be protected and enjoyed into the future. “It is going to be open and inclusive and that means it is going to take a while to make some of the calls.”
Most agree that increasing resilience should be a priority. “The near-complete destruction of the buildings and facilities at Big Basin illustrates just how ill-adapted they were to fire,” the Sempervirens Fund wrote on its website in February. “If you love Big Basin, please consider this: rebuilding Big Basin can pioneer a new model for California’s state parks, just as Big Basin accomplished more than a century ago.”
Before rebuilding begins, though, there’s a considerable amount left to be cleared.
Along with toxic debris and crumpled buildings that need to be cleared, hazardous trees are being assessed for removal. The process of identifying which trees are dead or dying is delicate and layered. Five agencies have already weighed in, and perspectives on what should stay and what should be pulled out do not always align.
Several beloved old-growth trees have already been saved by park officials, including the famous Auto Tree, which is the most photographed Redwood in Big Basin. Estimated to be more than 1,500 years old, generations of visitors have climbed into its large opening created by fires in the past. The pictures go back to the park’s beginnings. There are photos of horses and buggies backed in and of ranger trucks in the 1970s.
“There was a mark to cut down the tree,” Kerbavaz says, “but I said, hey, this is one we really don’t want to lose.” So far, it’s showing signs of survival, with small green offshoots at the base and sparse growth in the canopy, and there’s hope that it has enough structural support to stay standing.
The process of deciding what will stay and what will go has been thorough and arduous. First, CalFire came through and cleared a path for crews. CalTrans examined what might become hazardous to the roads. Santa Cruz county officials assessed the areas managed by the municipality, and then PG&E did their analysis. California’s Department of Emergency Services is currently in the park and still finding trees to mark for removal.
Trees are painted with a series of letters and numbers, meant to catalog them and indicate to crews that they should be culled. Some also have flags and ties, showing that park officials, who have overseen the process, do not agree.
“There is a science and an art,” Kerbavaz says of the process. “I come, of course, from the parks’ perspective, which is we really would like to keep as much as we can”.
Along with tree removal, trails will have to be remade. Most of the wooden infrastructure, including steps, bridges and railings were obliterated in the fire. Some of it was put in place to hold erosive hillsides, which have since crumbled. Other hazards have to be assessed before guests can be welcomed back in. There are pits left from where subterranean roots from more flammable trees, such as Douglas Firs, burned into the earth.
Meanwhile, scientists are utilizing the opportunity to use the burn scar to learn about fire behavior, ecological resilience, and climate change. “We are trying to get baseline data so people can return in maybe 5 or 10 years down the line, and see how it grows and changes into the future,” says vegetation ecologist Alexis Lafever.
“There are so many baby redwood seedlings and they are so cute,” she says. In some areas, she’s encountered hundreds of seedlings. They won’t all survive, but, she adds, “things are growing back. The forest will be fine.”
There are also signals that animals are emerging and returning. Salamanders survived by burrowing under the duff, banana slugs took refuge underground, and birds have re-inhabited the burned branches.
“Almost everything that lives here has some strategy for avoiding fire,” Kerbavaz says. “But any kind of disturbance like that, there are some species that are harmed and some species that are favored.”
There are those that thrive after fire. The Knobcone Pine requires temperatures up to 350F (177C) to melt a resin from its cones to sprout seeds. Some woodpeckers prefer dead trees to living ones. But the fire, which burned fast and hot, with flames that licked the canopy 300 feet (91 metres) into the sky and tore through close to 18,000 acres (7,285 hectares) of the park in only 24 hours, did leave devastation in its wake. Current assessments show even with the resiliency of the redwoods, 10% of the trees won’t recover. The damage is also expected to cost nearly $200m.
“Those buildings are gone. That specific experience is gone,” Kerbavaz says. “There’s some of that loss of the big trees that make it such a special forest. But we have opened up places for the next generation of big trees to grow,” she adds. “It will be beautiful again – even if it is not as you remember it”.