The Quiet Strength of California’s Redwoods

California burned with a fury last summer and fall. The wildfire season, the state’s worst on record, started earlier, with fires spreading faster and tearing up areas that previously had been thought to be protected from or at least resistant to blazes, ultimately burning more than four million acres.

Fire is nothing new in the West or to redwoods, as evidenced by burn scars in their stumps or the hollowed-out trunks of burned trees, still standing a hundred years later. But 2020 was unprecedented, at least in living memory.

The CZU Lightning Complex Fire tore through 97 percent of Big Basin’s 18,000 acres in just 24 hours. The state park is still mostly closed to visitors, but I drove up to a roadblock on the park’s southern flank to meet Joanne Kerbavaz, a senior environmental scientist with California State Parks. As I followed her down into the burn site, I was hit with a gut punch of emotion. Where the Avenue of the Giants had been a kaleidoscope of green, this was a visual negative, all black and sepia.

“We know redwoods have been in California for probably two to 20 million years. During that time, they’ve experienced plenty of extremes. But since we’ve been measuring,” Ms. Kerbavaz said, “last August was very extreme.”

“Extreme” meant unseasonably hot, dry and sparked by a highly effective ignition source; lightning. Coast redwoods are dependent on the marine climate — the cool, moist fog rolling off the nearby Pacific. If things continued this way, Ms. Kerbavaz said, redwoods may no longer be able to survive in these parts of California.

My mood was bleak as I considered California’s worsening drought and subsequent fears of another terrible fire season. But Ms. Kerbavaz found reasons for hope. “I can’t help but see the regeneration,” she said, and as I looked closer, I noticed, too — all over the charred landscape was glowing, green new growth. Redwood shoots crawled up charred trunks and along branches.

“I’m an optimist because I see the beauty of nature under a wide variety of circumstances,” she said. “I know these redwoods are here because they are survivors.”

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