‘Art and science’: In aftermath of the CZU fire, restoring our beloved trail systems is no easy task

Nicole Welsh of California State Parks
Nicole Welsh of California State Parks takes a brief break before heading back down a steep hill to get rid of limbs and branches.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Of the 175 miles of trails in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties affected by last summer’s blaze, only 7.5 miles have reopened so far. As the public anxiously waits to regain access to places like Big Basin and parts of Henry Cowell, crews from around the state and county are hard at work removing hazards and making trails safe for use.

Kile Foltz was smoking a brisket when the CZU Lightning Complex Fire came toward his house near Big Basin Redwoods State Park. After trying to wait out the flames, he eventually left his house — brisket in tow — and his family’s home burned to the ground.

Beyond returning home to deal with his own personal plight, Foltz’s job has him working to restore the passionate pursuits of many others who love the Santa Cruz Mountains. As a field crew manager for California State Parks, he is charged with leading efforts to reopen trails in Santa Cruz County that were affected by the fires — and it’s no easy task.

The 2020 CZU fires impacted 175 miles of trails in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, and only 7.5 miles have reopened so far. As the public anxiously waits to regain access to places like Big Basin and parts of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, crews from around the state and county are hard at work removing hazards and making trails safe for public use.

“We do things the hard way,” Foltz said, “but also it’s rewarding, and we’re not impacting the environment.”

Here’s a look at what it takes to reopen just one five-mile stretch.

The Lost Empire Trail.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

‘Conductor of an orchestra’

Located in Henry Cowell State Park’s Fall Creek Unit, the 5-mile-long Lost Empire Trail weaves through a canopy of redwoods, Douglas firs, madrones and tanoaks. It’s known as a popular spot for mountain biking, even though bikes are technically illegal in that part of the park.

The trail is also known for the towering old-growth redwood “Big Ben” (which the crews refer to as “Basic Ben” because they’ve seen taller redwoods nearby).

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Lost Empire starts through a forest of dead tanoaks, which Foltz said get especially “cooked” in wildfires compared to, say, madrones or firs. The redwoods that are woven in along the trail are especially resilient. This adds up to what the crew referred to as “mosaics” of burn.

“It is really heartening to me to see what a year’s worth of growth has done to these trees,” California State Parks’ senior environmental scientist, Joanne Kerbavaz, said while pointing to a section of redwoods.

Even trees that were badly burned in the CZU fire are sprouting new life.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Even though the trees have burn marks at the bottom, their needles were growing green again at the top. And fires also clear out space for different types of trees to join the canopy.

Kerbavaz likened fire to a poker dealer: “It reshuffles the deck and deals a new hand.”

It’s up to the trail crews to decide which trees to cut down, or “fell.” They work to identify potentially hazardous trees within 30 feet of either side of the trail.

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Any trees that looked like they could be hazardous but have a chance of regrowing, had pink markers — though Foltz speculated that many trees haven’t been able to recover because of the drought.

Still, he said, “We’re trying to not cut anything that has a chance.”

Kerbavaz added, “It does take time — there’s kind of an art and a science.”

She referred to Foltz as a “conductor of an orchestra.” There’s no user manual for any of this, and Foltz — who often hikes at least 10 miles a day while managing crews — has to make decisions quickly on his feet that will ensure the integrity of the trail.

Kile Foltz and Garret Hammack take a break to point out work they have done.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

‘Everything’s a resource’


After about 2 miles, the trail follows a ridge down to Lost Camp, where the majority of crewmembers — some decorated with charcoal beards — were doing their work on an early September day. Trailworkers came from State Parks, as well as the American Conservation Experience — an AmeriCorps program — and locally based Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Stewardship.

A couple of experienced contractors with the trail stewardship were charged with using lumber, from trees they fell, to build a bridge over Barrel Mill Creek.

“Everything out here for us is a resource,” Foltz said.

The process of dropping trees is unpredictable, at best: Often, a tree will land going down the trail and a 10-minute project becomes a whole-day task requiring several crew members.

The sawyer, Alex Aylard, looks up at a tree he is assigned to cut down.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Once the trees are dropped, they have to be processed in a specific way. If a tree drops on the trail, several crew members must move it off trail with “log tongs.” Certain trees, such as madrones, can be more dangerous to drop, as they are heavy and brittle and can crack open.

“You are limited by the tools you can carry in your hands,” said Garret Hammack, the superintendent of Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Stewardship. And they can be heavy. Crew members often have to hike several miles uphill with heavy machinery on their back.

Hand crews do the bulk of the work, Foltz said. They’re charged with pulling off all branches so all debris is on the ground and can decompose properly.

A burn pile.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

When there’s flat ground, where fire risk is low, the crews stack the debris into “burn piles,” which can help reduce buildup and prevent future wildfires.

“It’s been a dynamic work environment,” Foltz said. “You get into one section, you’re doing one type of work. And you just hit this other spot, and then the whole kind of workflow changes.”

This unpredictability is why the crews have been working to restore the Lost Empire Trail since March. They were about 75% done as of Sept. 9.

“We just can’t have the park open when we’re dropping trees,” Foltz said, adding that once the trail is safe, the public could have access while crews keep doing maintenance such as minor trail reroutes.

Joanne Kerbavaz, a senior environmental scientist.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Foltz was unable to give a timeline on when the trail would reopen. However, he said he’s hoping to finish up trail work by winter, as he’s optimistic that the unfinished upper portion of the trail will be quicker to restore because of how it burned.

Getting the necessary approvals from State Parks is a whole other story though. As Kerbavaz puts it, “Trails can be more work to put back than to create in the first place.”