Resilient redwoods offer clues as to how trees survive wildfires in Big Basin

As California Highway 236 winds its way into Big Basin Redwoods State Park in Santa Cruz County, there are signs of a fire fight, lost to Mother Nature. Charred bark and downed trees abound. But there are also signs of a rematch that’s already underway.

"Coast Redwoods are remarkably resilient. They’re engineered to comeback after catastrophe. And fire is just one of the catastrophes they’ve seen," said Joanne Kerbavaz, a senior environmental scientist for California Department of State Parks.

She said these trees are akin to nature’s skyscrapers. Some stretch as high as 300 feet, and have been in Northern California for millions of years.

Ocean moisture and fog produce perfect conditions for these trees to live.

Kerbavaz points to patches of rebirth nestled next to sections nearly burned from existence as an indication life has and continues to return this forest.

"They’re one of the very few conifers that have the ability to re-sprout. They can re-sprout from dormant buds along the trunks and out in their branches," said Kerbavaz.

Epicormic sprouting is taking place on much of the bark, and many tree limbs. New tops to trees can also grow, as well as entirely new trees. The key is damage at the base cannot be so severe as to kill the tree.

A little more than a year ago, the CZU Lightning Complex fires burned parts of Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties, including most of this 18,000 acre park. But the path to rebirth and regrowth started almost immediately, with indications the forest will partially replace what’s been lost in the next century.

The KNP Fire is threatening to completely destroy California’s renowned Sequoia National Forrest. But experts said the route to return to normal will be different for those trees.

"What the giant sequoias can’t do is re-sprout," said Kerbavaz.

Not all of the trees in the big basin forest are coastal redwoods. About 20-30% are Douglas Firs. One such tree had to be cut down, and is estimated to be 300 years old at the time it was destroyed by fire last year. The Douglas Fir faces a similar hurdle as do the giant Sequoias – they don’t re-sprout. They rely on seeds to produce new trees.

"So this is one of the seedlings coming up. And already that’s about eight inches tall," said Kerbavaz, crouching to the ground and next to a small seedling struggling to grow amid the tall trees.

California Office of Emergency Services contractors will soon complete removal of tens of thousands of hazard trees that liter the forest floor. Their work clears the way for a reimagined Big Basin, that is slowly but surely showing signs it will one day be woods filled with green, not charred trunks and limbs.

"Redwood trees are survivors," said Kerbavaz. "Always green, always living."