The Quiet Power of California’s Redwoods


California burned with rage last summer and fall. The forest fire season, the worst ever in the state, started earlier as the fires spread faster, tearing apart areas previously thought to be protected, or at least flame resistant, and eventually burning more than 4 million acres.

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

The CZU Lightning Complex Fire tore through 97 percent of the 18,000 hectares of Big Basin in just 24 hours. The state park is still mostly closed to visitors, but I pulled up to a roadblock on the south flank of the park to meet Joanne Kerbavaz, a senior environmental scientist at California State Parks. As I followed her down into the scene of the fire, I was hit hard. Where the Avenue of the Giants had been a kaleidoscope of green, this was a visual negative, all black and sepia.

“We know that sequoias have existed in California for likely two to 20 million years. During this time they have experienced many extremes. But since we started measuring, “said Ms. Kerbavaz,” last August was very extreme. “

On the road in 2021

Like everything in our world today, the road trip, a classic American experience, has changed.

“Extreme” meant unusually hot, dry and ignited by a highly effective ignition source; Lightning. Coast redwoods depend on the ocean’s climate – the cool, damp fog rolling in from the nearby Pacific. If things continued like this, Ms. Kerbavaz said, the sequoias in these parts of California may no longer survive.

My mood was gloomy as I reflected on the worsening drought in California and subsequent fears of another terrible fire season. But Mrs. Kerbavaz found reasons for hope. “I can’t help but see regeneration,” she said, and when I looked more closely, I also noticed – green new growth glowed all over the charred landscape. Redwood sprouts crawled along charred trunks and branches.

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