Big Basin State Park is about an hour and a half south of San Francisco, California, just northwest of sleepy, surf–and-college-town Santa Cruz. It was established in 1902–California’s first state park. More than one million people per year hike the old growth redwood groves, pick their way through crystal-clear brooks, point at banana slug lingering in the ferns, and poke out onto rocky peaks to get a glimpse of the Pacific, glinting on the horizon. It is a very special place, an iconic northern California landscape of towering pines, loamy trails, and cool, dark creeks.
It burned this week, consumed by the CZU Lightning Complex fire. The visitor’s center, park ranger headquarters built in 1936, campground infrastructure—all gone. Old growth groves torched. A devastating end to a devastating week of out-of-control wildfires across the state. All campers and staff had been evacuated before the flames came roaring in. If only the buildings and ancient trees were so lucky.
“We are grateful that everybody got out and everybody is safe,” said Sam Hodder, president of Save the Redwoods League, a San Francisco-based conservation organization. “That’s the most important thing. To have lost something that has been transforming people’s lives for more than 110 years, such an iconic place, such a terrific example of what parks mean to communities, it’s heartbreaking.”
Redwoods are very resilient trees and have evolved to live with fire. It’s unknown how extensive damage to the biggest and oldest trees—some of which tower about 300 feet from the ground and can be more than 2,000 years old—is, but reporters photographed some of the big trees near the destroyed headquarters had succumbed and toppled. Others had glowing fires still in their trunks, still more were blackened at the base, their needle-heavy boughs covered in ash but otherwise living and green.
Fire ecologists will ascertain just how much damage the trees have sustained, but with bark more than a foot thick, it takes a superheated fire to actually kill the massive trees.
As of Thursday night, nearly 600,000 acres had burned in California. In the Bay Area, fires rage on all sides, save over the ocean. An intense heat wave combined with rare August lightning storms ignited the fires, which have, mercifully thus far, burned in mostly remote areas, though tens of thousands of people have been evacuated, and many homes lost.