A Big Basin rebirth: California’s oldest state park won’t be the same, but nature is assuring it will be back
A year after the CZU Lightning Complex Fire tore through 97% of the park, Big Basin is showing signs of new growth and enters into a new renovation phase. ”We’re going to be looking at how to make the park more resilient in the future,” says the local State Parks superintendent.
A few hundred yards from the main entrance to Big Basin, Joanne Kerbavaz, a senior environmental scientist with California State Parks, stops her white Ford. Stepping out onto the ash and dead branches left from the CZU Lighting Complex Fire, she walks past charred stumps and downed trees and points up to a group of redwoods.
“Look,” she said, as a smile breaks at the edges of her mouth. “This is exactly what they do.”
At the base of the quintuplet of trees with blackened bark, a circle of lush, green is sprouting. Already over four-feet tall, the leaves of the saplings are soft and dewy.
Lookout checks in on the recovery effort
In a multi-part series, we talk to the folks who were hit hardest by nature’s wrath last August.
A year after one of the most devastating fires in state history, life is returning. Still, the return of Big Basin is a complex matter. With 97% of the park burned, including over 100 structures inside the park, it’s easy to believe that the park is all but destroyed. State and local officials are working towards reopening portions of the park by spring 2022 一 but that is hardly assured.
On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom visited the park, saying the devastating fire exemplified the ongoing struggles the state will have due to climate change. He spoke to reporters in front of the famous Auto Tree, still clearly charred by the fire.
“We have to do more and we have to do better as it relates to actively managing our forests, our vegetation management efforts, our pre-positioning of assets and our modeling,” he said.
Still, the resilience of the redwoods is remarkable. The massive, skyscraper-like trees that dwarf neighboring flora and, whether via their stature or their biology, have a mythos about them that makes even an ecologist like Kerbavaz hasten her tone. Her youthful enthusiasm is hard to miss.
“Redwoods are probably the only conifer that has this complete ability to resprout,” she said.
The tree, which can live between 1,000 to 2,500 years, has a valve-like system that helps ensure its survival. Due to its height, thick bark 一 which can grow up to a foot in thickness 一 resin, and shallow root system, as well as its ability to trap and retain moisture, the redwood can not only survive a fire of this magnitude, but also bloom new growth at the base of the tree, in its canopy or even survive such a blaze as the CZU Fire entirely.
“When the dominant buds are injured it releases dormant buds to sprout,” Kerbavaz said. “It is completely ready for disaster.”
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“This fire was incredibly hot, incredibly dry and incredibly windy and all those things came together,” she said.
What’s left is a “mosaic” as Kerbavaz calls it. Remnants of destruction: Melted trail signs and scorched stumps lay next to stone chimneys and unscathed garbage cans still standing in defiance as fledglings fly overhead and speed through new growth stories above the ash and debris-covered pathways below.
“You start to realize the magnitude of what has to be done. And none of it is easy,” she said.
Big Basin reimagined
The timeline for complete reopening is still undetermined. An estimated $186 million price tag is attached to the renovation and restoration process.
“Just those pieces of the puzzle that rebuilding is, is just so big. We’re just starting to get a handle on it,” she said.
Santa Cruz District Superintendent for California State Parks Chris Spohrer said Big Basin drew more than a million visitors each year.
Today, crews are largely working on salvage and removal. The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) took over renovation duties in the spring after Cal Fire and the state Department of Transportation worked on fire suppression and cleanup and restoration of Highway 236 over the last year, Spohrer said.
Throughout the park, trees are marked with a W and numerical signature in blue spray paint. Those will be removed, Kerbavaz said. Pink ribbons are tied on the “maybes.” Stumps are given a silver numbered dog tag. The removed or fallen trees go through the logging process: Cut down, cut in half or shredded into mulch.
Some of the lumber may be redistributed throughout the park for trail cover or used in rebuilding walkways, railings, or structures. Approximately 20,825 trees and 19,000 tons of mulch have already been processed and removed from the park, according to CalOES.
”We’re going to be looking at how to make the park more resilient in the future,” Spohrer said.
California State Parks has unveiled a “Reimagining Big Basin” plan, which outlines a tentative timeline with recovery. The plan is composed of three stages, including a planning phase that may extend into 2030. The park service is aiming to have public input throughout the process and is also accepting donations throughout the recovery process.
Spohrer said crews are currently in the beginning stages of Phase 2 of the plan. The earliest target for public access would be Spring 2022. The goal would be to create some public access near the former site of the park’s headquarters near the redwood loop, but facilities and restrooms will still be unavailable at that time. Additional public access would expand from there, he said.
The team is hoping to rebuild all of the structures lost, though Spohrer said that the buildings that do return will likely differ in both appearance and location.
“One of the challenges is understanding the changes that occurred and being realistic of the timelines,” he said.
The next iteration of the park is still in the discussion phase. In the immediate future, Kerbavaz is unsure of what the park will look like. With the canopy and removed trees, it’s likely to become a noticeable difference for visitors.
“At least temporarily the forest will be more open and less shaded than it had been before,” she said, adding with the decline in canopy cover she’s unsure how that may affect future growth and water retention throughout the forest.
Teams are continuing to monitor small fires and kindling near the top of broken old growth trees along with tracking potential areas for debris flow come rain season. Though outside of significantly heavy rains, Sphorer is optimistic the significant new growth will help contain any potential landslides.
Currently, access to Waddell Beach, Marsh Trail and portions of Rancho del Oso are open. The majority of trails remain closed due to downed trees or hazardous limbs. Right now teams are trying to clear the lighter burned areas, but public access is likely to remain closed for the foreseeable future due to potentially hazardous conditions.
“Even if people want to go to their old haunts, they may not necessarily be able to get there,” Kerbavaz said.
‘Banana slugs are back’
The stone steps at the original park headquarters are all that remain. A construction fence now outlines the former historic site. Kerbavaz points out a small patch of green next to the steps where the native garden used to be. It was removed due to the hazard zone the entire area was registered in, but before it exited she remembers seeing all of the native flora returning 一 a very positive sign.
“There are so many lifeforms that use redwoods as a life source,” she said.
The totality of the destruction is tough to quantify for her. After all, death is not something you can easily define in redwoods or the forests of Big Basin.
The Douglas firs are gone, the flammable and dangerous traps for firefighters where their deep, brittle root systems could give way during the height of the fire. The tanoaks are burned, reduced to fallen branches and brown, dead leaves scattered through the underbrush of the park. The Knobcone pines at the northern half of the park will be blossoming 一 decades from now.
“They only live 60 to 80 years, so there has to be a fire somewhere in that time for the pinecones to open,” Kerbavaz said, adding that they’re one of the few species that require fire to survive.
At the park’s peak, where the Knobcone pines dominate the hills, the effects of the fire may be best understood.
“Trees were resprouting when flames were still on the ground.”
— Joanne Kerbavaz, California State Parks
The arid soil is covered in ash and a museum gallery’s worth of charred beer cans from generations prior. The pines look like desiccated stalks, stretching for miles. But a closer look shows that neither these stalks nor the soil are sterile.
Pine cones sit, partially open atop those barren branches among the pines. Others scattered across the ground next to a little sliver of green, barely an inch tall. This is the beginnings of this plant’s life cycle: It’s small, seemingly insignificant to the untrained eye, yet, it’s a paramount sign that perhaps nature had a plan.
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“Trees were resprouting when flames were still on the ground,” she said.
On the foothills below, inside the ashy shell of the famous Auto Tree, just behind the mounds of soot, is a patch of moss. The green hue stands vibrant among the dead cells inside the bottom of the tree. It’s a stark contrast to the inside of the Mother of the Forest where the smoke smell still lingers strong enough to choke on.
“I think if you’re an ecologist and you take the longer view,” Kerbavaz said. “People think nature is static and what they see in their lifetimes is what it should be. They don’t see the timescale of a redwood tree or a volcano or a tectonic plate. They don’t understand what happens on all those different timescales.”
But these named trees, as well as the Santa Clara Tree, are among those that have been damaged significantly.
“Maybe some of this old growth that we really do love, are just starting to reach the end of their natural life,” she said. “If it was a 300-year-old tree that was killed, it is going to take a few hundred years for that to come back.”
Looking at the damage prompts Kerbavaz to pose a question out loud: “What is a dead tree in this ecosystem?”
Redwoods can grow anywhere from 3 to 10 feet within a year. Already, some areas of the park have new growth over 6-feet tall. California State Parks has estimated that 90% of the redwoods will survive. There have been no reported signs of any wildlife being erased or significantly displaced, rather some critters have already returned.
“Banana slugs are back,” Kerbavaz said. “I’ve heard more pileated woodpeckers after the fire than I have ever heard before.”
‘There’s something we all lost in this fire’
Oddly enough, next to ravaged areas large portions of the park are left seemingly untouched.
“It’s incredible ... I came in and people had to evacuate quickly, their bag of marshmallows was still on the table and it didn’t burn, but the tent cabin next to it was completely down to the ground with the metal on top of it,” she said.
Spohrer recalls how when he first returned to the forest a week after the fire had begun, it was disorienting to see.
“It was disturbing to not see any color,” he said. “It was all black and greys.”
That uneasiness has resided a bit more this summer, he said. As he has continued returning to the park, he’s begun to notice just how resilient the redwoods and forest are 一 just how much growth has come back. And that has helped him through the initial shock.
“There’s a period of mourning you go through for all the things you love and lost,” he said. “And you quickly realize redwoods are extremely resilient and these old growth trees have been through this before...it makes you hopeful of the forest rebuilding.”
Kerbavaz, who grew up in Richmond, remembers coming to the Santa Cruz Mountains in her youth. Her family would visit for weeks at a time and she’d feed deer alfalfa shoots.
She recalls the history of the lodge and how each generation added something different. In the ‘30s the lodge added pavilions and tent cabins. A dance hall was added in the ‘40s and a swimming pool opened the following decade.
“People’s recreational experiences changed over time,” she said.
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And it’s those experiences that seem lost, trapped in our memories for now. She mentions a park ranger who did an enormous amount of research inside the park but has found it difficult returning.
“There’s something we all lost in this fire,” she said.
And that’s the tortuous part of Big Basin’s recovery. Remembering the beauty inside the park, the memories shared or the moments of peaceful escape. It’s uncomfortable grappling with Mother Nature’s ugly, ruthless side and the barbaric way in which she tore all that down in an instant. But like all wounds, over time, it heals.
Perhaps different than the one we recalled in our youths, that beauty will return. And isn’t that the power of a destination like Big Basin? A place where the connection is transient. Those memories may be shared, but they remain different for us all.
And it’s those memories, Kerbavaz is eager to get back. It’s those moments she hopes are reimagined for future generations to come.