After the Big Basin Redwoods State Park was destroyed in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire on August 20, people searched for blame as to how the catastrophe could have been prevented. Some pointed to climate change, while others within the park system saw the lack of prescribed burns in the area as a dangerous game.
On the What the Docents Know podcast in 2019, host Peter Jordan asked scientist Portia Halbert, who works for the Santa Cruz District of the California State Park System, about the lack of prescribed burns in the Big Basin over recent years. Halbert responded with tears, along with a 16-second pause to gather her emotions, before delivering a prophetic statement on the status of the redwood forest.
“Given the right conditions, we’re poised to have catastrophic wildfires all over California,” said Halbert. “So what’s my anxiety level like? I think we’ve been really lucky to avoid something very extreme here in the Santa Cruz Mountains.”
After the emotional response in which she mentions the devastating result of the Camp Fire on the town of Paradise, Halbert mentions how the lack of clearing the smaller plants among the massive redwoods could act as “ladder fuels” in the forest. She went on to talk about California’s vulnerability in the face of massive wildfires.
“I don’t know that just the last three years of us not burning really has built my anxiety level,” she said. “But witnessing what’s happened in California with these wildfires has definitely made me feel, say, more empowered to try and get burns accomplished to sort of prevent that possibility for this area.”
After the fire ripped through the state park, destroying the park’s infrastructure and even taking out some ancient redwood trees, the Sempevirens Fund issued a statement that addressed the prescribed burns.
“Big Basin, in particular, has benefited from the longest, continuous program of prescribed burning anywhere in the state since the purposeful burning done by indigenous people who tended this landscape for thousands of years,” it read on the Sempevirens Fund website.
Research following the fire showed that prescribed burns had taken place in the park from 2000 to 2015 covering 410 acres, but nothing had been done since then. “We haven’t done a large burn in Big Basin in the last three years because the weather hasn’t lined up,” Halbert said in the podcast.
While many continue to argue the impacts of prescribed burns compared to climate change, a war of words has erupted in comment sections across California. But which is to blame? It’s safe to say that the devastating fires we’ve seen over the past few years are a unique combination of the two factors.