Just over two years ago, the CZU Fire raged through the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was ignited by lightning on August 16, 2020 and burned over 86,500 acres of forested land. Among those acres were the 18,000 that comprise Big Basin State Park.
Big Basin, which was established in 1902, is California’s oldest state park. It was created to protect and show off the area’s old growth redwood trees—some of which are between 1000 and 1800 years old and have trunk diameters exceeding 50 feet.
The CZU Fire, which was the largest and most destructive blaze in the area’s recorded history, ran through all but 3% of the park’s acreage. All of the human-built infrastructure was destroyed, including the visitors’ center, campgrounds, bathrooms, and the electrical grid and wastewater treatment plant built to handle the one million guests per year that the park previously received.
Needless to say, the forest landscape was also drastically affected by the event. Over 28,000 dead and downed trees have been removed from the areas adjacent to CA 236 (the main road through the park), trails, and parking areas alone.
But these trees were almost all oaks, madrones, and douglas firs—trees who can withstand medium-hot fires but whose sap boils in high temperature fires.
Almost all of the redwoods survived.
In July, Big Basin State Park announced a very limited reopening. I got online and paid for the required parking reservation, even though I knew only two short trails and a limited amount of fire road mileage were accessible to the public. I just wanted to see the giant Sequioa sempervirens in the process of regeneration.
It’s a beautiful sight.
As I made my way from the town of Boulder Creek out to Big Basin, I started to notice more and more trees that looked like fuzzy green pipe cleaners. “Are those redwoods?” I asked myself, knowing that the species evolved to withstand fire but not exactly expecting the trees to look so, well…alien. As I pulled into the reconstructed parking lot, it became clear that yes, the trees I was gawking at were redwoods—in their new guise.
Sequoia sempervirens has a remarkable survival mechanism: the existence of dormant buds around the bases of the trees and along the trunk. In normal times, when branches are healthy and soaking up sunlight and water, the growth of these buds is suppressed by the tree’s hormones. However, after a fire, when the tree registers that it has lost its canopy, these buds kick into sprouting mode. They need to get as much foliage out into the world in order to both photosynthesize (and therefore feed the tree) and draw water from the coastal fog.
As I started off on the classic .6 mile Redwood Loop Trail, I was awash in sprouting buds. Some of these were around the bases of the trees, where, in time, they may form what are commonly called “fairy rings”—circles of new growth around an spot where an ancient tree once stood. I’d seen “basal sprouting” before and wasn’t all that surprised by it.
It’s the “epicormic sprouting”—the buds that result in foliage sticking straight out from trunks and branches—that had me shaking my head. There’s so much of it happening that, in some spots, you can barely see the charred bark through the greenery. Epicormic sprouting is what is giving these recovering trees their pipe cleaner-like appearance. It’s a brilliant strategy for surviving fire—evolved in an ecosystem where, until recent suppression strategies took over, fire was a normal part of natural cycles.
Walking this loop was crazy and amazing and totally inspiring. The place looks totally different with its black tree trunks, bright green fuzz, and verdant undergrowth. There’s a lot more light coming through, and a whole new set of plants have sprouted up on the forest floor as a result. “We’re seeing species—native species—we’ve never seen before,” the volunteer docent told me.
Right now, the most obvious of these is something called horseweed (Erigeron Canadensis). In some spots, it’s creating an almost frothy-looking blanket of stems and flowers. Other dominant species are California lilac shrubs, yerba santa, California huckleberries, and, yes, invasive thistles.
“You know, most of these dead trees are doug firs,” she reminded me. “We knew we had too many of them before the fire, so the ecosystem is rebalancing itself.”
Which, of course, is what it does…if we don’t interfere too much.
Many years ago, fire moved through these spaces on its own, burning or not depending on the density and humidity of the vegetation it encountered. The indigenous populations of California—in this area, the Quirotse and Cotoni groups—recognized this and made prescribed burns part of life in this landscape. When European-descent people took over the region and built houses and other structures in the area, however, a zero-tolerance policy towards fire became the norm.
With few low-temperature and low-consequence fires occurring, undergrowth thickened and douglas firs became larger and more common—creating the perfect conditions for high-temperature, high-consequence fires like the one that so severely impacted the Santa Cruz Mountains’ ecological and human communities two years ago.
There’s a lot of work going into the “Reimagining Big Basin” project right now. Land managers, with input from the public, are deciding how to rebuild this park in a more sustainable way. Some of the ideas include relocating the visitor center and primary infrastructure farther from the old growth trees, since the amount of traffic in the area was affecting the giants’ roots. A shuttle system which would ferry visitors from a parking area into the heart of the grove is being considered.
In addition, there are plans to use more sustainable materials in the reconstruction process, since the toxins released from the burning Big Basin buildings made the fire extra hot in the core section of the park in addition to pouring pollutants into the air. Prescribed fires are once again being considered, and park officials are in conversation with descendants of the local indigenous communities to develop a strategy for their use.
So, we’re looking at more management. Smarter and more thoughtful management, yes; but still management. Human-directed management.
Without one iota of human interference, redwood trees evolved brilliant strategies to survive fire. Then, without human interference, these strategies kicked in to enable some of the oldest trees on the planet to come back to life after a fire that was particularly destructive, thanks to our interference. The balance of species in the forest is recalibrating on its own, and a new set of plants—which we did not choose—is being giving the opportunity to thrive.
The forest doesn’t need us to “manage” it; that much is clear. We’re what needs to be managed.
Can we manage ourselves for the good of all species? Much of the time, it seems we’re barely able to manage ourselves for our own benefit.
As one park and one human population chooses its path forward after an ecological crisis of historic proportions, we have an opportunity to broaden our focus—to allow change to happen in our landscapes, to avoid human construction in fire-prone areas, to accept some inconvenience in order to prioritize the livelihoods of our non-human companions.