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22 August 2020

Scorched tanoak (Neolithocarpus densiflorus) leaves

As I write these words, a massive and powerful wildfire is raging through the Santa Cruz Mountains, approaching the city of Santa Cruz from the north and west. This morning's stats:

  • 63,000 acres burnt/burning
  • 5% containment
  • 1157 people fighting the fire (roughly 10% of what is needed to fight a fire of this size)
  • firebreaks constructed to protect the city and university
  • firefighters coming from out of the area and out of state

Much of the terrain burning is redwood forest. Big Basin Redwood State Park has burnt extensively. All park buildings and campgrounds have been severely damaged if not destroyed. Up the coast from me at Waddell Creek, the fire burned all the way to the ocean. Rancho del Oso, the nature center at the bottom of Big Basin at Waddell Creek, is in the middle of the forest; I don't know whether or not it still stands.

Each of these leaves tells the story of the destructive power of Nature. Most of them are from tanoak trees (Neolithocarpus densiflorus) or California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica), both of which are very common understory trees in redwood forests. For the past week, charred leaves have been tossed by updraft and carried along the wind, to be deposited miles away. Fortunately they are no longer acting as live embers when they touch down.

My camera gear is all packed up, in case we need to evacuate. I took these photos with my phone when I went to the marine lab this morning. They are completely unaltered. If they look a little too orange, well, that's how everything looks right now.

Why did I feel compelled to take these pictures? I think it's because the damage to Nature caused by Nature should be acknowledged as well as the damage to human lives, homes, and health. What I'm about to say may sound insensitive. I do not want to diminish the human tragedy of lost homes, livelihoods, and health. But I do want to shift my personal focus a little bit, because dwelling on all that has been and could be lost only renders me unable to function. If I can think about the future, perhaps even the long-term future far beyond my own life, I feel more grounded and ready to deal with the now.

What is and has been happening to the redwood forests is absolutely tragic. But the redwoods themselves are fire-adapted and resilient. The forest will recover. Already there are Facebook groups organizing to help the residents who have been displaced, begin the long and arduous process of cleaning up once the fire crews give the okay to do so, and start thinking about long-term monitoring of the forest's recovery. From a purely ecological perspective, it will be fascinating to document the process of secondary succession.

But before any of that can happen, human safety is the top priority. We are far from the end of this ordeal. While the weather has cooperated the past couple of days, with cooler temperatures and higher humidity thanks to the return of the marine layer, the forecast calls for 20-30% chance of lightning weather Sunday through Tuesday. That means more lightning strikes and more fires starting. We were visited by a firefighter yesterday afternoon, who told us that while we were not in the immediate evacuation zone we need to be ready to go. She advised us to do the usual fire prevention stuff—clear out a defensible space around the house, make sure there's no leaf litter or debris on the roof, etc. So we did. And now we stay indoors as much as possible, as the air quality outside is dismal. And we wait.

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