Wildfires destroyed ‘irreplaceable’ trees

John Branch, right, interviewed Nate Stephenson, a research ecologist at the United States Geological Survey, in the Kings Canyon National Park in October. Max Whittaker for The New York Times

They are the only plant species in California honored and protected by national parks that bear their names. They attract crowds from around the world.

By Coral Davenport and Lisa Friedman
From Climate Fwd. — The New York Times

But 2020 was not a good year for the coast redwood, the Joshua tree or the giant sequoia. Already under long-term threat from a changing climate, the huge wildfires this year took dramatic aim at the state’s three most famous species.

In Big Basin Redwoods State Park, 97 percent of the 4,400 acres of old-growth forest burned. In Mojave National Preserve, a single fire wiped out an estimated 1.3 million Joshua trees (which are really yucca, a perennial shrub). In the Sierra Nevada, the 2020 fires burned one-third of the remaining habitat of giant sequoias, killing hundreds, maybe thousands, of ancient trees in a relative instant.

“They are literally irreplaceable,” said Kristen Shive, a forest ecologist, “unless you have 2,000 years to wait.”

The ranges of these species do not overlap; they live in vastly different ecosystems, sometimes separated by hundreds of miles. That is what made 2020 so stunning. Like never before, at least in modern times, has fire done so much destruction to each of these species, and it did it all in one year.

This fall, I accompanied experts into the burn areas — some of them still smoldering and off-limits to the public — with the photographer Max Whittaker. What we found was, at turns, heartbreaking, surreal and hopeful.

Heartbreaking because so many trees that had stood stoically in one place were snuffed out so quickly.

Surreal to see a desert turned the color of spent charcoal all the way to the horizon, or a lush green forest of rigid-straight redwoods turned into a jumble of blacks and browns.

Hopeful because there are signs of life, if you look hard enough.

No scientist is predicting the extinction of these species, but concern about each species’ long-term viability has grown in recent years because of climate change. The immediate worry is over the preservation of old-growth trees.

The giant sequoias, the world’s biggest trees, can live thousands of years. But there are only about 70 sequoia groves sprinkled through the Sierra Nevada, covering about 48,000 acres.

For context, more than four million acres of California burned in 2020. The wrong fires in the wrong places can wreak substantial destruction on the remaining sequoias in a relative instant.

Until the past few years, sequoias were considered practically immune to fire, and fire was a frequent guest in their groves, either from natural causes or from Indigenous land management. But through most of history, scientists said, fires were low-level affairs, occasionally clearing the forest floor and burning themselves out. Sequoias, with their thick bark and crowns that stood above all other conifers, stayed out of the fray.

Not anymore. Not after a century of aggressive fire suppression in California forests — now widely considered a fatal management error. A severe drought began in 2012, and a bark beetle infestation tagged along, killing huge swaths of forest. Those dead trees, many of them now falling, are kindling for the giant fires that California saw in 2020, and very likely will continue to see.

The stories are different for the Joshua trees and the redwoods. Joshua trees, not built to withstand fires, find themselves in habitats of invasive grasses that are burning more and more with the warming planet. The day that dry lightning started the fire in the Mojave National Preserve, killing more than a million Joshua trees, was the day that nearby Death Valley reached a record 130 degrees Fahrenheit, or about 54 Celsius.

Redwoods were long thought to be protected from big fires by their cool, foggy, coastal environment. This year ended any lingering sense of comfort, especially when so much of the Santa Cruz Mountains, including Big Basin state park, went up in flames. But redwoods have an ability to regenerate that the other species do not. They are harder to kill, though not impossible.

We are left to wonder what it means for the trees, for the state, for the future. You can read the story here.