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Massive Basin redwoods announce: ‘Information of my demise has been tremendously exaggerated’

Because the fire has moved on from Big Basin State Park (Boulder Creek, Santa Cruz County), a reporter and a photographer could walk into the park for a first-hand view of California’s oldest state park. 

… 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. (…)

“But the forest is not gone,” McLendon (Laura McLendon, conservation director for the Sempervirens Fund, an environmental group dedicated to the protection of redwoods and their habitats) 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 (100 meters), the tallest tree in the park. After the top broke off in a storm, a new trunk sprouted where the old growth had been.

Redwood forest is a fire-adapted plant community; fires can have ecological benefits. The trees can regenerate from seeds, roots (sometimes via burls), and crowns, plus re-sprout new growth on trunks where branches burned off. The trunks are protected by a thick bark layer high in tannins that resists burning and insulates the important tissues (cambium and xylem) beneath the bark that are essential for survival and growth. The center of all trees, not just redwoods, are  composed of dead material (heartwood) that can burn without harming the tree. Walking through redwood forest you’ll see many trees with hollow centers, tall majestic trees whose tops are barely visible from where you stand. These hollow centers are so common they have a name—goose pens—featured in tourist brochures.

Goose Pens are where the base of a redwood has been hollowed out by fire, but the top of the tree is still thriving. These openings are so large that, in earlier days, settlers in the West could corral their livestock in them, thus giving the goosepens their name.

Over centuries, individual redwoods alive today (some estimated at 2,000 years old) have survived many fires, some triggered by lightning. Fires have been an essential part of this ecosystem for millennia. Redwoods grew in California 20 million years ago, and elsewhere 240 million years ago. Tree ring studies show growth spurts following past fires due to added nutrients, water (from reduced competition), and sunlight as the burned vegetation falls and rots.

This is not a tree dying, despite the alarming appearance of a fire in its dead wood heart.  

Other plants in this ecosystem are also designed to benefit from fires that open up light gaps, release seed dormancy, and add nutrients to the soil from ashes. Wildlife benefit from fires because the new growth is more palatable and often produces more abundant and accessible fruits and seeds due to the additional light and nutrients and lower growth habit. The margins of redwood forest, on the slopes between Big Basin and the Pacific Ocean, and other shallow-soil, sunnier locales often are dominated by knobcone pines (Pinus attenuata). The cones of this pine require hot fire to open and scatter seeds that also need fire to break dormancy. Knobcone seeds don’t germinate and grow without fire.

The fires we have now in California are different than historical fires because of all that humans have done to alter the forest composition—the species and age diversity of the plants—and remove natural fire. We’ve also altered the landscape and broken the forest habitat into pieces, forming a mosaic with residential and road development. Plus, we have created climate change, which results in today’s exceptional, but now normal, hot dry conditions and weather that brings 10,000 lightning strikes in a few days. 

A burned forest is not as glamorous and magical-looking as the places we hold in our memories. It’s likely that Big Basin and other prized tourism habitats burning in these fires will look damaged, messy, and sad to us for a long time.  So we do have something to mourn. However, we also have something marvelous to admire.  Regeneration, renewal, and change are nature’s enduring magic that was easy to forget as we drove on a forest road to paved lot, where we enjoyed a picnic at a table in a cleared patch of forest close to the parked car. I’m not saying all the burned forests are fine, because it’s too soon for anyone to make that call. But it’s also too soon to write an obituary for Big Basin redwood forest. 

Thanks to Daily Kos Community member plantdokta who, in the comments today, just posted a link to another story affirming the scientific verification that it’s too soon to tie a toe tag on the redwoods. That story includes this fantastic video.

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