A year after fire, burned Santa Cruz forests sprout with new life but growing takes time – East Bay Times

FELTON – One year ago fast-moving fire spotted and jumped along Santa Cruz County’s redwood forest floors. Flames spread rapidly in many areas and climbed the trunks of ancient redwood and fir giants.

The CZU Lightning Complex fire burned roughly 86,500 acres from the Santa Cruz Mountains into San Mateo County. More than 1,490 structures were lost, and 911 homes in Santa Cruz County burned.

In Big Basin, 97% of the 18,000 acre forest burned. Even though the CZU Complex fire was declared controlled around Christmas of last year, the park has seen spot fires pop back up within hollowed out redwood cavities throughout the spring and summer.

Still, signs of life abound in the CZU Complex burn scar. Beloved parks look different than they once did though. And questions remain on long-term forest recovery, amidst a changing climate and increasing wildfire risk.

In Fall Creek, a 2,390 acre unit of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, redwoods now bear charcoal scars. Some span the length of the giants’ mighty trunks, nearly 100 feet long, running up into the canopy.

But the trees – soaring up to 300 feet tall – stand resilient.

Redwoods stand resilient despite being torched in part of Fall Creek, a unit of Henry Cowell State Park. Fuzzy new green growth has sprouted at the base of the trees. Other trees across Santa Cruz County forests, such as Douglas fir and Knobcone pine, didn’t fare as well. (Hannah Hagemann — Santa Cruz Sentinel) 

“It’s very very difficult to kill a redwood tree,” said Joanne Kerbavaz, senior environmental scientist with California State Parks. “They have these incredible built-in abilities to quickly respond and thrive after fire.”

Even in death, the trees regenerate. Redwoods here that were engulfed by flames already have new growth.

“From my perspective — looking at the redwoods — even the dead ones aren’t dead, except a tiny portion of them, that are really small and not resprouting,” Kerbavaz said.

When redwoods are damaged, a hormonal response activates growth in dormant buds that sprout up as new branches and needles along the tree’s trunk and base, Kerbavaz explained. More severely damaged trees may look “dead” above ground, but below, regrow from an underground stem, creating near-identical duplicate copies of the original redwood.

But other trees aren’t as resilient to wildfire.

Douglas fir were particularly hard hit in the Santa Cruz Mountains, along with knobcone pines, tan oaks and madrones. Still, many hardwood trees cut down for safety risk already show signs of life, sprouting from stumps.

It will take a while for scientists to understand just how many of these trees won’t survive as a result of the CZU Complex fire. And forest regeneration in seriously burned parts of Fall Creek, Big Basin and elsewhere could also take decades to centuries.

Zane Moore, a UC Davis doctoral researcher studying redwood development and genomics, is mourning that.

“The hardest thing for me, was seeing the Douglas fir and knowing those are never coming back, even in my lifetime they will never be like they were,” Moore said. “Even in 100, 150 years … the Douglas fir will never be what they were in Big Basin. That was a challenging loss.”

Moore has also worked as a docent in Big Basin since 2012. He’s been on the ground surveying the forest recovery post-fire.

The scientist echoed Kerbavaz, agreeing that virtually all redwoods will come back over time.

Badly burned redwoods — though already resprouting — will likely take upwards of 100 years to fully recover from the CZU Complex. (Contributed illustrations, courtesy of Shirley Chambers and Sempervirens Fund)

But the future of Douglas firs, which take root from seed, Moore thinks is more uncertain. With that he said, comes anxieties about the endangered marbled murrelet, a sea bird that nests in the giant firs.

Most of all though, the fire has been devastating for the residents who lost their homes, livelihoods and communities, Moore said.

It’s also meant a loss of sacred spaces, where favorite trees once stood, and may no longer.

“There’s a million visitors a year that go to Big Basin, that’s where a lot of people’s first memories were made in the redwoods, it’s California’s oldest state park and lots of history was lost,” Moore said. “This is a big cultural loss. This fire was devastating to the whole community, people are still recovering from it, not just the forest.”

Mosaic of impacts

There’s a strange, alien, beauty to the charred areas of Fall Creek.

Blackened redwood trunks juxtapose neon green new growth. Bushy leaves jut out of stumps at obtuse angles where brutally fire-damaged oaks and madrones once stood. Where elegant long redwood branches reached to the sky, new fuzzy canopy has already begun to fill in.

To Kerbavaz, it’s just a question of how long it will take for forests such as this to come back in the way visitors remember them as before the fire.

“I think for so many of us, we look at our human lifespan and expect things to stay the same,” Kerbavaz said. “When I’m here I think on a redwood forest lifespan.”

Joanne Kerbavaz, senior environmental scientist at California State Parks, looks up at a redwood that was scorched in the CZU Lightning Complex fire. (Hannah Hagemann — Santa Cruz Sentinel) 

That’s a lifespan that can last 2,000 years. For nearly 20 million years, Kerbavaz said, redwoods have experienced and adapted to fires, floods and landslides in California.

Throughout Fall Creek and Big Basin forests, the CZU Complex fire burned at different severities. Some parts of the forest were spared. In others, fire crawled on the ground. And in some places, it jumped into the canopy, and crowned trees.

In areas where fire intensity was low, and slower moving, scientists say the forest was renewed and rejuvenated.

But in forest regions that burned very hot, habitat has opened up for invasive species, such as French broom and jubata grass.

Badly burned trees near highly trafficked areas of Fall Creek that pose safety risks and aren’t showing signs of regrowth are being carefully felled by California State Parks crews.

Jacob Hyde, a crew chief with Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Stewardship and expert sawyer, fells a tan oak. The tree was severely damaged in the CZU Lightning Complex and would have fallen naturally over the next couple of years, California State Park scientists said. (Hannah Hagemann — Santa Cruz Sentinel) 

“If a tree has got any bit of green on it, we are trying to give it a chance,” said Kile Foltz, a State Parks field crew manager leading the work in Fall Creek. “We’re going after the obviously completely dead trees.”

The staff follow a strict protocol. Crews document how severely trees are leaning and inspect damaged inner layers of bark. Trees near trails will only be felled if staff determine it will naturally fall in the next two to five years.

The same strategy is taking place at Big Basin.

Along with state workers, Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Stewardship field crews have been working in the park since April.

“It’s not only the plants and animals you’re seeing being affected by the fire, but the entire surface of the trail and the topography has changed dramatically,” said Garret Hammack, superintendent with the Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Stewardship.

From Summit Road, down to Big Ben Trail, the park burned fast and hot, leaving dead trees standing along the trails.

When crews got on the ground, debris, brush and dead trees littered the trails. Workers had to crawl on their hands and knees to begin their clearing work. The restoration has been slow-moving and challenging, Hammack said.

Now though, crews have rehabbed a substantial portion of the more than 5 mile long Lost Empire Trail.

Staff are also delimbing trees that were damaged but weren’t killed by the fire. Many dozens of burn piles have been arranged, which will be carefully ignited later this year.

Drought affects regrowth

Foltz said it’s been surprising to see how quickly the forest has begun to regenerate.

But he’s also seen regrowth slowed or stopped on some recovering trees. The crew suspects Santa Cruz County’s drought is a factor.

“Everything has gotten a lot drier, I don’t think we got enough rain this year,” Foltz said. “Some of the trees we’ve been eying and watching asking ‘how much green or growth is on it,’ those are slowly starting to not be green anymore.”

Thousands of trees lie across Santa Cruz County forests that have fallen — by natural cause or human intervention — presenting the possibility of further fire risk. And in many of these steep, remote areas, trying to remove these trees would be a calculus.

There’s also questions that remain around the future of these forests.

“The consensus is things are getting hotter and drier. I’m concerned that we could have more back to back impacts from fire,” Kerbavaz said. “I’m also curious if in some species there’s thresholds where things will get to the point where they won’t be able to respond.”

A California State Parks employee collects fire-damaged branches. The limbs are being collected into piles, that will be carefully ignited later this year. (Hannah Hagemann — Santa Cruz Sentinel) 

That could mean in a changing climate redwoods become limited to more moist areas of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and are less widespread, according to Kerbavaz.

“We could start to see the outliers in the hotter and drier areas not being able to come back.”

Still, Kerbavaz — a self-described “hopeless optimist” — said the vast majority of severely scorched or felled trees will come back eventually.

What remains to be seen is just how long that will take.

But life gets through the cracks.

Pileated woodpeckers have been seen at higher numbers than ever before at Big Basin. Never-before-seen species of fungi have been documented in burn scars. Fire-follower plants, such as bush poppies, are thriving in the areas where fire touched down.

The fire is also giving scientists an opportunity to understand how fast moving, hot wildfires impact Santa Cruz County redwood forests, amidst drought and climate change.

Last year, just months before the CZU Complex fire ignited, State Parks completed high-resolution aerial mapping of its forestlands. The agency plans to do the same types of surveys again to monitor forest regrowth, post-fire, and under drought conditions.

Bush poppies, a flower that thrives in areas damaged by wildfire, has taken root in the CZU Lightning Complex burn scar. The fire has created habitat for an array of rare flower and fungi species. (Contributed photo — Ian Bornarth) 

Researchers will continue to document just how widespread tree death is throughout different species, as well as recovery — topics that have been sparsely researched in the Central Coast range.

Looking forward

A bright spot in the changing forest is seeing communities waking up to issues and wanting to be a part of solutions said Laura McLendon, director of Land Conservation at Sempervirens Fund.

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