Fire in the Coast Redwoods

I am saddened by the fires in California this summer, especially those in the Santa Cruz Mountains, in the redwoods south of San Francisco and north of Santa Cruz. I spent much time as a teenager roaming Big Basin State Park, Butano State Park, and other places. Beautiful places. But they haven’t been destroyed — far from it. Fire is as natural there as in other forest types in the west. I recall playing in old redwoods hollowed out at the base by fire, still standing and growing.

Fire was once common in the redwoods, but as in the Sierras and elsewhere, the elimination of Native American fire and aggressive fire suppression has led to high levels of fuels, dead and green. Some observers will point to climate change as the dominant role in these fires, but human management or the lack of it is a large and often ignored factor.

Here’s a paper on the topic:

The Enigmatic Fire Regime of Coast Redwood Forests and Why it Matters,” J. Morgan Varner and Erik S. Jules, Proceedings of the Coast Redwood Science Symposium, 2016.

13 thoughts on “Fire in the Coast Redwoods”

  1. Redwoods survive wildfire at California’s oldest state park
    By Martha Mendoza
    Associated Press

    BOULDER CREEK, Calif. — When a massive wildfire swept 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 confirmed most of the ancient redwoods had 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 was “gone” were misleading.

    The historic park headquarters is gone, as are many small buildings and campground infrastructure that went up in flames as fire swept through the park about 45 miles south of San Francisco.

    “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 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.

    State Parks District Superintendent Chris Spohrer said he was pleased to know 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.

  2. Thanks for citing a link to paper; I’ll check it out

    Steve — Did you watch the WilderThanWild movie that Sharon recently posted link to?
    I highly recommend it; very balanced approach to complex issue of fire, climate, increasing human population in the WUI and related topics.
    Links to view movie come up in google search.

    One important message from the scientists and land managers who are interviewed in the film, as well as the live discussion w/ director & a fire manager last Saturday evening, is that we as a society need to change our views re: fire. We need to rethink smoke, air quality, fuels mgmt. and many other things IF we’re going to enable land managers to more actively use prescribed fire as a tool.

    Yes, fuel load as result of fire suppression is a factor.
    BUT climate change is also a key factor and it affects every fire prone ecosystem and landscape in California whether conifer forests in the Sierras or whatever the vegetation is that has been burning in the wine country.

  3. I’ve seen this statement that there was little if any damage to the old trees several times in the last few days but zero evidence. Pictures anyone? All the networks have published (that I’ve seen) have been pictures of destroyed structures and other infrastructure. Thanks.

    Professor Emeritus, Forest Ecology
    Oregon State Univ.

        • NY Times today:

          California Fires: Want to Control Blazes? Start More, Experts Say

          Edward Smith, a forest ecologist with the Nature Conservancy:

          “We’re chipping away at a backlog from 150 years of suppression,” he said. “But we can get to a point where we’ll be able to keep up with the accumulation of fuel.”

          As we have discussed here many times, huge amounts of accumulated fuel in many areas precludes Rx fire and stokes wildfire.

      • Andy – Thanks. The comment about arboreal Histosol caught my eye. In the tropics I’ve found “perched” Histosols – massive duff accumulations on what looks like the forest floor but turn out to have an open air space beneath with a second much thinner O horizon beneath the air layer. Plants (even trees) germinate readily in the perched layer, then extend their roots into the mineral soil.

        The duff accumulation at the base of old OR Coast Range trees can be over a meter thick – small branches, bark, needles, even a broken beer bottle in one case. I’m recommending that woodland property owners remove that material so that surface fire can’t girdle the trees. But I’m concerned that doing so may disrupt some aspect of the tree’s functioning. Any info appreciated.


        • More rakes (sorry — couldn’t resist).

          A homeowner concerned about fire effects on their landscape trees could rake duff around desirable trees as a part of a comprehensive Firewise strategy. Doing so may lessen overall fire intensity, too, when combined with judicious canopy thinning. I know of one homeowner whose German-style raking diligence paid off during the Biscuit fire. Data on raking’s effects on soil ecology might be found in the truffle literature — lots of raking in that industry!

          Dick Waring is my go-to guy for fire effects on tree physiology. Years ago, I had the great pleasure of spending a couple days in eastern Oregon with him as he sampled bark-singed trees marked by the FS to be logged because they were “dead.” A shotgun used to collect needles, he measured their pore water pressure with a pressure bomb. Like human blood pressure; if normal, you’re alive.

          The FS’s thesis was that smoldering duff around the trees had baked their cambium, girdling the tree. I suppose that may have happened to some trees. But not the ones the FS marked for salvage logging as “dead.” These were 100+ year old ponderosa pine, green and healthy as the day is long. And still are today, thanks to Dick.

          Thick-barked species should do fine during a fire — bark is a great heat insulator. Thin-barked species will die, although many are adapted to fire by prolific sprouting (madrone). The forest will endure. Of course, you know all this :).

          • What if the coming winter is extremely dry, above normal temperatures, or both? How could (potentially) stressed redwoods handle that extra stress?

            • Excellent question. Any data? An even better example may be sword fern (Polystichum), which develops a massive accumulation of dead leaves at its base. Some gardeners recommend removing the dead leaves but other people have voiced concern as to their role in protecting the basal part of the plant from winter freeze. I can’t imagine the dead leaves don’t help also in summer drought, but they are fire fuel. Again, any actual data would help.

              Phil Sollins

            • I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the fire has “stressed” thick-barked redwoods. Pore water pressure can be as readily measured in coast redwood as in ponderosa pine. If the fire has caused physiologically meaningful damage to a tree’s xylem, it will be apparent in leaf pore water pressure. If pore water pressure is within normal (for the time of day, temperature, and soil moisture), then I’d expect the redwoods to handle “extra” winter drought stress in the same manner they always have, i.e., some will die (the fate of all trees) and most won’t.

              • That is why I parenthetically pondered ‘stress’. I was curious. Good to know.
                Suppose time will tell.
                There are numerous reports of extensive tree fall so far within the fire area, creating a mess around roads. Would probably be a good guess that they are all younger redwoods or other species.

  4. Living in Santa Cruz, I have a front row seat in watching the battle and seeing the twice-daily briefings. It is going to be a long time before the burned area goes cold. They will have to seek out and extinguish every smoldering spot in the whole of the 80,000 acres. Additionally, the deep duff layer has been troublesome in line construction. Over 700 individual homes have been destroyed, and the damage survey is not yet completed. Hazard trees have been a particular problem inside the firelines. Many redwoods will survive the fire but, the trees with pre-existing cat-faces will fall over, or be cut as a hazard tree. Apart from the redwoods, other species probably won’t fare well. I would expect that cambium kill will be significant.


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