“I should’ve brought my chainsaw,” Joanne Kerbavaz says with a chuckle as the two of us drag a small fallen tree off of Highway 236 in Big Basin State Park. The tree sits less than 100 feet from one of the entry gates.
It likely fell during the early November rains the day before. As we tug the branches, I think about how strange it feels for the two of us to be alone in California’s oldest state park.
Kerbavaz, a senior environmental scientist for California State Parks, notices the quiet, too. In the year since the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, the hills have echoed with the constant clamor of chainsaws, trucks and heavy equipment.
Crews hauled burnt rubble out of the area and cleared more than 25,000 hazard trees after the fire. The second major phase of cleanup efforts, in partnership with Caltrans, Cal OES and Cal Recycles, wrapped up just a few weeks ago.
Now the noises in the park are softer: a trickling stream, leaves rustling, birdsong. But it’s not the same dampened quiet of the old-growth forest before the fire. Sound seems to echo a bit farther in the open space, and sunlight beats down on soil once shaded by a dense canopy.
Scorch marks run hundreds of feet up bald trees. Scientists estimate that 98% or more of the redwoods survived, but about 75% of the Douglas firs did not.
The forest is more open, sunnier and warmer. It feels different than it did before the fire. And experts say it likely will for the rest of our lives.
But as Kerbavaz and I meander through the charred landscape, we see signs of renewal at every turn. Fuzzy green sprouts surround trunks, stems and branches. Recovery will be slow, but it’s happening.
The CZU fires burned through 97% of the park’s 18,000 acres. Headlines in the fall of 2020 pronounced it gone. In some respects, that’s true. The historic buildings, bridges, trail systems and signs were almost all destroyed.
Big Basin now exists as a blank slate of sorts. Parks staff are using the opportunity to completely rethink the layout and visitor experience.
“This is a chance for state parks, our partners, stakeholders and the public to create a new shared vision for what the park can be,” says Chris Spohrer, the superintendent of the Santa Cruz District of California State Parks.
State Parks recently launched the Reimagining Big Basin project. The effort invites the public and several partners to help plan the park’s future. On the Reimagining Big Basin website, interested participants can pinpoint a spot on the map and share a memory. Parks staff will use the memory-mapping tool and surveys to learn what the public finds most important about the park and how to improve it.
The Reimagining project also hosts occasional pop-up events around the region, and open webinars. After a year, input from the community, an advisory committee and a steering committee will make up the basis of a visioning document in 2022.
“With a changing climate, we need to really be thoughtful about the type of infrastructure that we put in, where it’s placed, how we provide public access,” says Spohrer.
“A goal will be to create a park that will be resilient for the next 100 years,” he says. “Another goal is to have a park that provides equitable access.”
Rooted in Community
Big Basin, established in 1902, saw changes over the decades. Cars became popular, and people parked inside the ancient redwoods. A swimming pool came and went. Visitors hand-fed deer. But through it all, the basic layout of the park stayed the same.
“The world changed around Big Basin,” says Sara Barth, executive director of the Sempervirens Fund and member of the Reimagining advisory committee. “And the fire cleared the way and made evident that the way it was probably is not the way it should be going forward.”
The Sempervirens formed in 1900 with the goal of protecting old-growth redwoods from logging. The group helped create the park, and it will now guide the new vision.
Representatives from the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area also sit on the advisory committee.
People have been living among the redwoods and managing land on the central coast for at least 10,000 years. In Big Basin, Cotoni and Quiroste people used fire as a tool to keep meadows open and improve the productivity of plants like hazelnuts and basketry species.
Spanish and American colonizers began suppressing Native cultures and removing Indigenous people from their ancestral homes in the 1700s. Now descendents of some of the original tribes hope to rekindle their relationships with the land and tell their histories.
“When the park was initially set up, there was no Indigenous voice involved in the planning of Big Basin,” says Valentin Lopez, the Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. On the advisory committee, Lopez will advocate for Indigenous land stewardship, protections for cultural sites and educational spaces for Indigenous and non-Native people.
“We want to co-manage at the park,” he says. “We don’t want to just be a subordinate partner who offers opinions, but is not recognized for anything beyond that.”
One important goal is to have a place for ceremonies. “Part of our responsibility for Indigenous stewardship is restoring sacredness to the land,” says Lopez. “A lot of our ceremonies are private. But we will also have public ceremonies there, so people can go by and learn about how Indigenous people have relationships with the lands and how they steward them and how they take care of them.”
The planning started on an optimistic note. “We have a really good relationship with the parks on just about everything,” says Lopez. “They’ve been very welcoming and inviting.”
Alongside the stories highlighted in the park, another thing that will almost certainly change is the visitor center location.
“We know more now about the ecology of redwood forests,” says Barth. “And if you were designing a park from the get-go—like they are going to be doing with this one—you would not put a visitor center right in the heart of the most ecologically sensitive old-growth groves.”
Coastal redwoods grow taller than any other trees, with a maximum height above 300 feet. But their root systems rarely extend below 12 feet. Their stability comes from breadth instead of depth. The shallow roots branch out up to 100 feet from the trunk and intertwine with other redwoods.
They evolved to support each other. But in the last century, we also forced them to support the weight of parking lots and buildings.
Fire risk is another concern that will influence the locations and building materials of new structures. The CZU Lightning Complex was not the first fire to sweep through the old-growth forest. The same year the park opened, it burned.
“The whole country from the Big Basin to the sea seemed to be enveloped in flame,” reads a Santa Cruz Sentinel article from September of 1904.
Kerbavaz takes inspiration from the old reports. They highlight the resiliency of the forest. “People were saying ‘Big Basin is lost. It’s devastated. We worked so hard to save it, and now it’s gone.’ And by 2020, very few people even remembered that there was a fire in 1904,” she says.
When a Tree Falls
Redwoods as a group appeared over 240 million years ago. They existed before the continents drifted apart and before the evolution of birds, flowers, and mammals that would eventually take refuge among their branches. Coastal redwoods more specifically have graced this area for 20 million years.
These trees have seen a lot. And in all that time, they’ve evolved more than a few tricks for survival: Bark that can grow more than a foot thick protects the sensitive ring of living tissue. This natural armor contains high levels of fire-resistant chemicals called tannins, which are also what give redwoods their characteristic color.
Height also helps. Taller canopies make it harder for flames to reach the branches.
But char marks from the CZU Fire stretch to the very tops of some of the trees. The forest has experienced fire for millennia, but the infernos of recent years are hotter and larger than what they evolved with.
Still, it was not the intensity of the fire that killed some of the unlucky redwoods. Small fires smouldered in the hollows of living trees for several months after the main blazes went out. The lingering embers compromised the structure of the huge trees, and gravity did the rest.
To save some of the old-growth, the park brought in experts from Humboldt over the summer. They climbed the trees and set up sprinklers inside them.
Many of the oldest redwoods in the park were already hollow from past fires. I step inside the ancient tree known as “The Mother of the Forest.” Charcoal cracks beneath my feet, and the smell of smoke fills my nose. The interior is completely charred black.
Kerbavaz pinpoints the sensation. “It’s like a big barbecue grill in there,” she says.
But back outside the tree, we can see the green of new life lining the branches. In the ashy aftermath, redwoods have yet another trick: They resprout like weeds.
In little time at all, fuzzy green growth surrounds their bases. On some trees, it lines their trunks or covers their branches, making them look hairy.
Kerbavaz points to a tiny green sprig jutting out from a pile of cut logs.
“This log is sitting here, and this tree is still trying to grow,” she smiles. “It’s like it’s saying, ‘I’m not dead yet.’”
Some of the sprouts around the bases already stretch above six feet. Several of the older trees in the park started out this way. They grew as clones around a much larger ancestral tree. When that tree fell—or in the case of many Santa Cruz Mountain giants, was logged—it left behind an empty circle, called a fairy ring.
“When one stem—in this case the mother tree—dies, did the tree die? Well, that stem died, but the clonal ones are all still there,” says Kerbavaz. She says watching the new growth after the fire gave her a new perspective on the forest.
She notices fairy rings more often now and they remind her that the ecosystem constantly changes.
“I want Big Basin to look like it looked in July 2020 forever,” she says, motioning to one of the old giants. “But in reality, it was already looking different than it had looked 200, 300, 500 years before. There’s always some level of change within these systems, whether we observe it or not.”
Following the fire, scientists have tracked as much of the recovery as possible. Researchers are studying the trees, soil, fungi, animals, water—anything and everything they can.
Different stages of a recovering forest provide opportunities for species of all sorts. Pileated woodpeckers hammer into dead stumps. Bark beetles feast on dead wood. Wildflowers and mushrooms spring out of charred soils.
A little over a year after the blazes, tanoaks have resprouted from their bases. Huckleberries have already grown three feet. And knobcone pines, which need fires to open their resin-sealed cones, have spread their seeds.
Seeing the forest for the trees
As the forest rebounds, the parks service faces the daunting task of making it safe and accessible. There is currently no water, gas or electricity in the park for visitors or employees.
“I think it’s important for people to realize a park like this, that served the public 365 days a year, had similar infrastructure to any municipality,” says Spohrer.
“We have a water treatment facility. We have a wastewater treatment facility. We have distribution lines to those throughout the park. We have electrical utility. All that has been lost.”
And over 75 miles of trails still weave through hazardous trees and unstable slopes. In the backcountry, cleaning up trails, taking down dangerous trunks and building several dozen new bridges without nearby roads will take years.
With the hard manual labor comes tricky decisions. Walking through the park, Kerbavaz and I see a few leaning trees.
To my untrained eye, they look ready to topple with a gust of wind. Those, she tells me, likely grew that way to reach more sunlight in a crowded forest. But even to experts, it can be hard to tell.
Of the trees that do come down, some will become fence posts, railings, and building materials within the park. Others will rest on the forest floor and provide food and habitat for other species.
“Our trail staff has been working as hard as they can,” says Kerbavaz. “And even with the dedication and ability of those folks—which is awe inspiring—the progress is slow.”
She points out that the employees working in Big Basin also manage the rest of the parks in the region. “These were people who were fully employed before doing the things that just needed to be done on an annual basis. So now we’ve created this incredible backlog of work.”
The scope of the project feels a little overwhelming, says Spohrer. “But there’s really dedicated people, and the support from the public has been huge.”
Planning and infrastructure will take much longer to establish, but parks staff plan to open Highway 236 and provide limited access to the forest this summer.
“We’re hoping to at least give the public some window into what the forest recovery looks like by opening some limited parking off of Highway 236 by the summer,” says Spohrer. “People should anticipate that it will not look the same as they remember, and it will not look the same as they remember in any of our lifetimes. It’s going to be a long process for recovery. And that’s not necessarily a negative. We just have to think about the forest recovery in a timespan that’s different than human time.”