Redwoods tower over Big Basin State Park before the CZU fire complex ravaged much of the area beginning last week. Many of the park's massive, old-growth redwoods have reportedly survived the worst of the damage. Hyper Hamlet/Flickr
Redwoods tower over Big Basin State Park before the CZU fire complex ravaged much of the area beginning last week. Many of the park's massive, old-growth redwoods have reportedly survived the worst of the damage. (Hyper Hamlet/Flickr)

Some Good News: Many of Big Basin's Ancient Redwoods Appear to Have Survived

Some Good News: Many of Big Basin's Ancient Redwoods Appear to Have Survived

When the massive CZU Lightning Complex fire began sweeping through California’s oldest state park last week, it was feared many trees in a grove of old-growth redwoods — some of them 2,000 years old and among the tallest living things on Earth — may finally have succumbed.

But an Associated Press reporter and photographer hiked the renowned Redwood Trail at Big Basin Redwoods State Park on Monday, and said most of the ancient redwoods he observed appeared to have withstood the blaze. Among the survivors is one dubbed Mother of the Forest.

“That is such good news, I can’t tell you how much that gives me peace of mind,” said Laura McLendon, conservation director for the Sempervirens Fund, an environmental group dedicated to the protection of redwoods and their habitats.

Redwood forests are meant to burn, she said, so reports earlier this week that the state park in the Santa Cruz mountains was “gone” were misleading.

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The historic park headquarters has been completely destroyed, as have many small buildings and elements of campground infrastructure that went up in flames as the fire swept through the park.

“But the forest is not gone,” McLendon said. “It will regrow. Every old growth redwood I’ve ever seen, in Big Basin and other parks, has fire scars on them. They’ve been through multiple fires, possibly worse than this.”

When forest fires, windstorms and lightning hit redwood trees, those that don’t topple can resprout. Mother of the Forest, for example, used to be 329 feet tall, the tallest tree in the park. After the top broke off in a storm, a new trunk sprouted where the old growth had been.

Trees that fall feed the forest floor, and become nurse trees from which new redwoods grow. Forest critters, from banana slugs to insects, thrive under logs.

On Monday, Steller’s jays searched for insects around the park’s partially burned outdoor amphitheater and woodpeckers could be heard hammering on trees. Occasionally a thundering crash echoed through the valley as large branches or burning trees fell.

When Big Basin opened in 1902 it marked the genesis of redwood conservation. The park now receives about 250,000 visitors a year from around the world, and millions have walked the Redwood Trail.

The park only recently reopened after COVID-19 related closures and now is closed again indefinitely because of the fire. The road in is blocked by several large trees that fell across it, some waist-high, some still on fire.

While there is a great deal of work to be done rebuilding campgrounds, clearing trails and managing damaged madrones, oaks and firs, Big Basin will recover, McLendon said.

“The forest, in some ways, is resetting,” she said.

The Sempervirens Fund on Tuesday launched a public fundraising campaign to assist the recovery of Big Basin.

The funds they receive will be used in the immediate term to help the California State Parks system get into the park and assess the situation, said Sempervirens Fund spokesperson Matt Shaffer — something they haven't yet been able to do.

"There's a lot of work to do just to clean up what’s been damaged, much less assess what needs to be fixed," Shaffer said, stressing the need for California State Parks officials to be able to move blockages, cut up debris, maintain access roads and repair or replace infrastructure within Big Basin.

The organization said 100% of the donations received will go to assist in these endeavors.

State Parks District Superintendent Chris Spohrer said he was pleased to know many of the redwoods had survived. He said an assessment team had only been able to check buildings so far, and that he hopes they can inspect the trees in the coming days.

“The reason those trees are so old is because they are really resilient,” he said.

KQED's Carly Severn and The Associated Press contributed to this story.