Professor Dustin Mulvaney explored the damage within the CZU Complex’s burn scars and found just what he’d expected: regrowth.
It’s 2021—the world can’t help but be on the lookout for good news. For many Californians, Dustin Mulvaney’s photographs were just that.
In late November, the professor of Environmental Studies at San Jose State went trekking through portions of the Santa Cruz Mountains burned by the CZU Lightning Complex fires. A 20-year resident of Santa Cruz County, Mulvaney is well familiar with that terrain, he said, and three months after the fires, Mulvaney’s curiosity got the better of him.
“I hadn’t had a visual on it, and I was just curious to see how things were sprouting back,” Mulvaney said. Ultimately, he posted his findings — in the form of more than 90 photos, many showing various stages of forest regrowth — to Twitter.
Much to the delight of the Twittersphere, the first photo he posted — of coast redwoods above Empire Grade, just east of Bonny Doon — showed small green shoots bursting furiously from redwoods whose branches had been browned by flames. The thread piqued peoples’ attention, Mulvaney quickly saw. It made sense enough: those familiar with the region were “really freaked out” about the future of the Santa Cruz Mountains and Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
“The reason I didn’t get freaked out is because my colleague Will Russell — a redwood ecologist in my department — he was being evacuated from his home because of the fires in the middle of our faculty meeting,” Mulvaney said. “And he was not even worried about the redwoods. He’s going, ‘Yeah, they’re going to be fine.’”
Mulvaney didn’t wander into Big Basin proper the day of his hike, but nonetheless, he says he knows the park will heal. Large wildfires previously plagued the park a century ago — a fact Mulvaney explored in another Twitter thread — and even then, amid headlines about the park’s ‘doom,’ it recovered nicely.
We spoke to Mulvaney to better understand what exactly he saw out there and how and when the mountain habitat might look its best self again. Read on — treat yourself to some good news to begin 2021.
Can you start by telling me a little about yourself? I understand you’re a professor of Environmental Studies at San Jose State.
I’ve had my Ph.D. in Environmental Studies for 12 or 13 years now, and have had a master’s degree in it for almost 20 years.
And you’re from Santa Cruz?
Between Santa Cruz, Ben Lomond and Capitola, I have lived in the area for 20 years.
So I reached out after seeing a lengthy Twitter thread you’d published showing both damage and regrowth in areas burned by the CZU Lightning Complex fires. Tell me about taking those photos in that thread: what prompted that?
Well, I feel like I know that landscape extremely well, so I was just curious. I wasn’t really in the severe burn area, so that’s really important context, here . I was not in an area that had crown fire — though I was on the edge of some areas that have crown fire.
What’s crown fire?
Crown fire is when it’s in the treetops, when it’s a massive fireball, and it’s just traveling really, really fast. So the severe part — it was basically along just Empire Grade, which is a road in Santa Cruz Mountains.
At one time I literally lived in a tiny little studio in Ben Lomond, and stared at that entire ridgeline that those pictures are of every day. I was curious, because when I lived there I watched that whole ridgeline every morning, and I knew fire had come over it.
Some of the first pictures you posted were of redwoods beginning to sprout anew. Seeing that — those signs of recovery — how did you feel?
I was in an area that was really managed fire, so they were in control of the flames, it seemed. But it was neat to see how the tan oak leaves seemed to drop and coat everything in there really quickly. And thinking about it — is that an evolutionary response of the tan oak, to drop its leaves and then re-sprout after fire?
The trees all responded so differently. The Douglas fir seemed to not do well, nor (some of the) pines. One area, up by Eagle Rock, is mostly maritime chaparral, a kind of habitat (that does fairly well). Then there are knobcone pines. If they don’t get fire for 120 years — that’s the age of those trees, they’re not super long lived — that means they disappear from that landscape, because no there’s no reproduction without fire.
That’s just the direction of that ecological community — it trends in one direction without fire or some other management. Without fire, you’ll be left with a big pine forest, pines like ponderosa, and guess what? Those pine forests are susceptible to big crown fires, and then it all starts over again.
There were also some photos you took that showed pretty much complete desolation — I think one was actually of some pines. Was that surprising to see?
No, I wasn’t surprised by anything about this fire. Nothing was surprising. Partly because when I lived in Ben Lomond, I saw three big fires right from my house. One of them was a half mile away from our house. So I got super interested in fire, and I saw a couple talks about ten years ago from the resource conservation district and Bonny Doon Fire Safe. These organizations were like — we are prepared for some apocalypse event. So if they were thinking about something that, I could use my imagination and figure out what that meant. And that’s what we saw in a lot of the habitat.
Tell me about the response your photos received — they seemed really to resonate with and interest folks on Twitter.
I think there is something to the fact that there was an absence of information, and it had people [anxious]. There was a tremendous amount of anxiety created by media coverage of the Big Basin fire. If you look at the articles, they’re all, like — Big Basin’s devastated! It’s all destroyed! And really — fire burned the whole thing, no doubt. There was catastrophic fire in certain areas, no doubt. But it made everybody think [Big Basin] was just a charred nothing. A charred empty bowl of ash. There were a lot of structure fires — there’s a lot of sentimental attachment to buildings for people who grew up here. I didn’t have any of that, so there’s that part of it. I remember being there once with my parents, thinking it was dumb to have a log cabin next to a redwood tree. It’s like having kindling.
A lot of the photography was in a different part of the park, for certain, but I saw pictures of Douglas firs that were really small, and people were, like, oh — look at the old growth redwoods! And I was like, come on, guys. People were imagining that the Doug fir was what they remembered as the giant, giant old growth redwood.
So I think it was nice for people to see how resilient that forest actually is, and that it can manage the fire. Some parts that I photographed definitely weren’t managed fire, like up toward Eagle Rock, but that’s how fire moves.
I saw you were sharing the articles from the early 1900s, another time when Big Basin burned seemingly catastrophically. Would you expect to see the park recover as it did after that fire, even in the portions with catastrophic burns?
Certainly. Absolutely. One of the things about just living here for so long, I’ve met, like, every mountain lion ecologist, bird ecologist, and we’ve gone out to all these spots. The fire that happened right adjacent to Big Basin ten years ago, the Lockheed Fire, I went on that property some three years after. It was eventually bought by the Open Space Trust, but I was there before it was bought by them. And all of the manzanita were sprouting back. It looked really good already. It made me realize — how, particularly with the chaparral type stuff, even the spots where [nothing is left], a few weeks later, you’ll start to see stuff coming out of the ground without even any rain, which is just remarkable.
I never knew that’s how redwoods re-grew until I saw your photos — the fact that they sprout shoots from their trunks is pretty crazy.
I only knew that because I see so many fire master thesis defenses. Two faculty in our department are redwood ecologists, and one of them is a longtime faculty member there, so every time we have a master’s thesis defense, [students] go in and they show pics of how redwoods re-sprout. I think people are shocked to see how it sprouts along the bark — which I then learned is because tree is really under stress, from what people were replying to the thread.
That’s the funny thing about using Twitter — I like to use it, because I have all of these smart people following me. I’ll be like, I don’t understand this. Someone help me understand what’s going on here. And then someone drops in to explain.
I’m certain that there are going to be a ton of people studying that area. The people in our department, for sure, will be studying the fire from fire ecology perspective. I know there’ll be good stuff on that coming out over the next couple of years. At San Jose State we have a new wildfire research cluster, and they do all this type of stuff. They launched this fall the day instruction started, which was the day the wildfire started. The day of a once in a 120-year wildfire.
For someone who is familiar with Big Basin but hasn’t been able to make it to the part of the park that burned — someone who does feel that anxiety about that landmark preserve that burned — what would you say to them? How would you describe the state of things?
Give it a little bit of time, and it’s going to look just the same. There’ll be some areas that’ll be a little more open than in the past, but that redwood area will recover really fast. The chaparral will recover really fast. I bet you there are some areas that don’t look like fire went through at all already, just because what I saw with the leaf litter could bury the signs that fire even went through. If there’s no charred stumps, you won’t even see anything, except for green sprouts popping up everywhere. You won’t see the buildings anymore, but the rescued the artifacts they contained. I think that just — give it time, and a little rain, a little sunshine and it’ll look good over there.
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