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The Resilience of the Redwoods: Big Basin’s Rise from the Ashes

Bryan Donoghue, Guest Blogger

Photo credit: Kirt Edblom


The birds are starting to return, even as the forest floor smolders around the base of their roosts. Animals begin to trickle back into the park grounds, even as firefighters work to fell scorched Douglas Fir trees before they come crashing down on the behemoth Redwoods that surround them. Though many of the structures built by humans lie in ruins, nature carries on at Big Basin State Park, just outside Boulder Creek deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The CZU Lightning Complex wildfire raged fiercely, and indeed threatened total devastation, but in the end it will just be another bout of adversity overcome by the 2,000 year old forest.

Photo Credit: Ogwen

Over the centuries, Big Basin has evolved from a largely homogenous grove of coast Redwoods into a diverse ecosystem of Douglas Firs, Madrones, and Oaks scattered throughout the old growth. While at first glance this only serves to add to the beauty of the park, it has the unfortunate side effect of making the area increasingly susceptible to wildfires. It may seem counterintuitive, but the occasional fire can be beneficial to California Redwoods - fire enriches the soil and allows redwood seedlings to grow, while also clearing out more flammable species that could ignite the canopy were disaster to strike. There is ample evidence of indiginous peoples native to this area prescribing burns to ensure the Redwoods remained safe. But while Redwoods may be resistant to fire, the same can’t be said for the other species of trees - or the the 70+ year old buildings scattered throughout the park grounds.

The store where campers buy firewood? Gone. The 84-year-old headquarters building where hikers or mountain bikers could get maps of the trail system? Gone. So many of the bridges, the fences, and the other man-made structures found throughout the park were destroyed, yet, for the most part, the Redwoods remain. The resilience of these trees in the face of an apocalyptic inferno is nothing short of incredible - their thick bark provides significant protection against the flames, and in the event the fire does penetrate that defense, they can survive and even regenerate themselves even when the majority of their heartwood has been burnt out.

Melted metal phone booth and destroyed infrastructure at a Big Basin State Park campground after 2020 wildfires

Photo Credit: Randy Vazquez

Humans have shown similar resilience amidst these wildfires sweeping across California, Colorado, and throughout much of the western United States. As wildfires descend upon communities and cause rampant destruction, humans across the country have shown that they too can survive and regenerate. The herculean efforts devoted to containing the fire, the tireless work to safely evacuate threatened areas, the blood, sweat, and tears shed as people begin to rebuild their devastated homes and communities. The fact that such destruction is occurring at the same time as a global pandemic and widespread social unrest seems to be an insurmountable challenge, but humans have faced worse and will overcome once more. Our hearts go out to everyone facing disaster, and we salute your determination to rebuild and regrow. If you’d like to help those impacted by these fires, please follow this link to the California Community Foundation’s Wildfire Relief Fund:

Smoke, embers, and charred wood inside the trunk of a redwood tree in Big Basin State Park during 2020 wildfires

Photo credit: Randy Vazquez

Big Basin

Through the valiant efforts of the firefighters, rangers, and other emergency personnel Big Basin will be preserved, will live, and will one day again become a popular destination for outdoor activities (current estimate is not before next year). The iconic Mother and Father of the Forest trees are safe - for now, and will continue to preside over the oldest state park in California. The extent of the damage wrought by the fire has yet to be fully assessed, but as the containment rate rises we can remain hopeful that this and countless other parks across the country will one day open up again for camping, hiking, mountain biking, trail running, and countless other outdoor activity opportunities. But neither containment nor rebuilding efforts are free - parks like Big Basin cannot reopen without significant investment. If you’ve ever enjoyed the natural beauty Big Basin has to offer, consider giving a little back to aid the monumental task of reconstruction. Follow this link to the Sempervirens Fund’s Big Basin Recovery Fund and pitch in what you can:

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