In the backcountry of Big Basin Redwoods State Park, trail crews have found one of the prettiest sites in Northern California – the remote canyon where Berry Creek Falls, Silver Falls and the Golden Cascade all flow – scorched and ravaged in the wake of this summer’s massive CZU Lightning Complex Fires.
“The entire Berry Creek drainage burned over and there is extensive damage to the viewing platform and railings and trails,” said Joanne Kerbavaz, a senior environmental scientist for California State Parks who inspected the area this past week after hearing from a district trail crew.
The CZU complex involved multiple fires sparked by lightning in mid-August. They coalesced into a giant blaze that burned without containment for several days and ultimately devoured 86,509 acres. The fires often turned into infernos along ridges and high slopes, Kerbavaz said, yet often burned slower and with low heat when venturing downhill into deep, moist canyons.
The blazes incinerated structures at Big Basin headquarters, charred many forested slopes across the region, devoured dry vegetation at ridgelines and felled numerous trees, said Kerbavaz.
The extensive damage to the park means the public won’t be allowed in again for at least a year, state parks officials have said. “Bridges are out, trees are down across trails, hazard trees are being identified,” Kerbavaz said. “Access is extremely difficult.”
In the past month, Kerbavaz has made multiple visits to the backcountry of the Santa Cruz Mountains and into the adjoining Butano, Portola Redwoods and Big Basin Redwoods state parks. Most recently, she was joined by Michael Grant, Butano’s former resident ranger who’s now a parks volunteer.
The pair found a matrix of conditions at many sites beloved by the public, including new growth already sprouting in many areas, but say numerous obstacles remain to be overcome before public access can be restored.
“My guess is that rains will have to put out the hot spots,” Grant said. “Winter winds and landslides will topple fire-damaged trees. Hazard trees not knocked down by wind and landslides will have to be dealt with. Park staff will have to determine the safety of trails and infrastructure. They will have to be repaired, trails will have to be cleared, and then the parks will think about reopening the park.”
More in Big Basin’s backcountry discovered to be destroyed
The fire damage at Big Basin’s headquarters was well chronicled after Gov. Newsom toured the park, the oldest state park in California. The park’s ranger station, adjacent museum and visitor center burned to the ground, and its amphitheater and wood benches were damaged.
Nearby, Kerbavaz found last week that the tent cabins at the park’s Huckleberry Loop also were destroyed. “Yes, Huckleberry burned,” she said. “The cinderblock bathroom survived. There’s a lot more fallen redwoods here than the other areas. Many were already structurally compromised, many with cavities. For some of these trees, this fire the final straw.”
At nearby Sempervirens Falls, a small, chute-like waterfall that pours into a basin pool, the surrounding redwoods were charred, Kerbavaz said, though not as severely as those in the vicinity of the tent cabins.
The area of the park’s three landmark waterfalls, she said, emerged torched by the fire. The three are Berry Creek Falls, a 70-foot freefall that turns into a mosaic in low flows; 60-foot Silver Falls, where park visitors could reach out and touch the water as it flowed past; and the Golden Cascade, where clear water flows over sandstone in a series of chutes and falls and feeds into Silver Falls.
In the Redwood Loop, an easy walk routed through old-growth redwoods, the trees dubbed the Mother and Father of the Forest were charred but survived; smaller trees around them burned. Almost all the trees in the grove were at least scorched, Kerbavaz said.
The epic Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, a 34-mile route through Big Basin from Castle Rock State Park on Skyline Boulevard to Rancho del Oso at Highway 1, is peppered with fallen trees, hazard trees burned areas on ridges, she said. Some areas could be subject to slides from erosion in heavy winter rain, Kerbavaz said.
The Butano Rim won’t reopen soon due to fire
At Butano, the fire scarcely touched its campground, nestled at the bottom of a canyon in redwoods with both drive-in and walk-in sites. Still, it won’t open anytime soon, Kerbavaz said.
“Entry into the burned areas is still unsafe,” she said. “Second, Butano operates its own water system. The intake along Little Butano Creek was destroyed by the fire. The campground restrooms and water spigots are not functional.”
Higher up in the park, she said, the news is both good and bad.
Along the Rim Trail, a spectacular mountain bike route above Butano’s canyon, Kerbavaz said, she could “see along the ridge tops, it burned hotter.” Expanses of Manzanita and thickets of knobcone pine provided fuel.
“Knobcone pines are fire-dependent, where it takes a temperature of over 350 degrees to open the cones,” Kerbavaz said. “They’re getting a huge advantage now to reproduce from seeds on the bare ground.”
The amount of flora already sprouting in the area was a shock, she said. “Manzanita is already sprouting,” Kerbavaz said. “Huckbleberries, tanoaks, live oaks, madrones … they grow pretty fast.”
On the canyon slopes, the fire burned at lower intensity. “A lot of the downslope fire activity is clearly beneficial,” Kerbavaz said, clearing the understory without killing the trees.
A remaining mystery is the fate of Butano’s awesome Candelabra Tree, named for its five massive stems that extend from a trunk that is 20 feet around. Located on the flank of Gazos Creek Canyon, it remains inaccessible due to downed and hazard trees blocking trails, said Catherine Anderson, a senior visitor aide for Butano and other state parks in the area.
“No one has been to it yet,” Anderson said.
Portola Redwoods park escaped serious damage when fire crews set up their line of defense along the park’s boundary. On much of Portola’s perimeter, the fire burned at a relatively low heat, “like a perfect prescribed burn,” Kerbavaz said. The Peters Creek Grove of old-growth redwoods, known by many as “The Bay Area’s Lost World,” remained untouched.
When the park was evacuated during the fires, part of Kerbavaz’s role was to save a taxidermied mountain lion in the park’s museum. “I was driving around for a while with a mountain lion in the back of my pickup truck,” she said with a laugh.
When the fires were finally contained, she said, she retreated to one of her favorite spots in the “The Lost World” grove.
“I just sat there for a while, marveled at how the light was shining through the grove … and thought about what we’ve all been through this year.”