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Ancient 2,000-year-old redwoods survived California wildfires – including Mother of the Forest tree

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. 

Three massive wildfires as raging in Northern California after they were ignited by more than 13,000 lightning strikes since mid-August, scorching through 1,875 square miles of land and killing seven people. 

On Monday firefighters had a brief respite from the flames as humidity rose, but the state is still reeling from dozens of blazes including two of record-breaking size. 

More than 600 wildfires have sparked statewide and burned through more than 1.2milllion acres since mid-August, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

More than 1,200 buildings have been destroyed and 14,000 firefighters have been deployed, including some on 24-hour shifts.

Now firefighters are facing off with three large fire complexes surrounding the Bay Area, all sparked by lightning: the LNU Lightning Complex, the SCU Lightning Complex, and the Santa Cruz Fire also known as the CZU Lightning Fire.

SATELLITE SPOTLIGHT: @NOAA’s #GOES17🛰️ continues to track the extensive #smoke from the #wildfires across Northern California. This #GeoColor view shows the smoke blowing well away for the #fires, stretching hundreds of miles over the Pacific Ocean. #CAwx #CaliforniaWildfires

The fires are so powerful smoke is visible from outerspace, stretching hundreds of miles over the Pacific Ocean. 

However, things are looking up. A warning about dry lightning and gusty winds that could trigger more fires was lifted for the San Francisco Bay Area on Monday.

‘Mother Nature’s helped us quite a bit,’ Billy See, the Cal Fire incident commander for a complex of fires burning south of San Francisco, said.

Yet, a quarter of a million of people are still under evacuation orders and warnings.

Officials are warning people to not return to their homes amid the blazes. Six people who returned to a restricted area south of San Francisco to check on their properties were surprised by fire and had to be rescued, the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office said.

The fires have claimed seven lives so far.

Firefighters battling a fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco discovered the body of a 70-year-old man in a remote area called Last Chance over the weekend.

He had been reported missing and police had to use a helicopter to reach him in an area of about 40 off-the-grid homes that had been under an evacuation order.

‘This is one of the darkest periods we’ve been in with this fire,’ Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Chris Clark said on the discovery of the man’s body.

The LNU Fire and SCU fires have both burned more than 500 square miles. The LNU blaze in wine country has been the most deadly and destructive blaze of them all – leaving five dead and 845 homes destroyed in its wake. Three of those victims were in a home that was under an evacuation order when they died.

As of Monday afternoon the LNU fire, located in the northern Bay Area and Central Valley, is the second largest in the state’s recorded history. It spans 350,030 acres and is just 22 percent contained.

The SCU Lightning Complex stretched 349,196 acres and was 10 percent contained as of Monday morning. The SCU Lightning Complex fire, located east of San Jose, is the third-largest fire in the state’s recorded history.

‘The size and complexity of this fire is not one we’ve seen in times past,’ Cal Fire Chief Shana Jones said. 

Cal Fire spokesman Steve Kaufmann said lightning was responsible for about 585 fires in the past week and that more than 1.1million acres have been scorched since August 15 – more than five times the size of New York City of the entire state of Rhode Island set on fire. 

As of Monday more than 10million people in the West were under red-flag warnings, which means warm temperatures, low humidity and strong winds provide for an increased risk of fire danger, according to the National Weather Serivice.

The fires have been further complicated by evacuations amid the coronavirus pandemic and looting in some areas.

‘What we’re hearing from the community is that there’s a lot of looting going on,’ Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart said, adding that 100 officers were patrolling areas and anyone not authorized to be in evacuation zones would be arrested.

Fire commander Chief Mark Brunton with Cal Fire was one of the victims robbed while trying to face the fires.

He said after he left his fire vehicle to help direct operations someone entered it, stole personal items including a wallet and ‘drained his bank account.’

Gov. Newsom has issued a checklist for residents to take face masks, sanitation supplies, important documents, medication and three days’ worth of food and water.

Over the weekend Newsom said the state received a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration due to the fires meaning President Trump released federal aid to supplement recovery efforts in Lake, Napa, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Solano, Sonoma, and Yolo counties.

This year there’s been a spike in wildfires. So far in 2020 there’s been 7,014 fires compared to 4,292 at this time in California last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom said. 

Last year, wildfires charred a total of 260,000 acres and killed three people, according to Cal Fire. 

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