California's Ancient Redwoods Face New Challenge From Wildfires And Warming Climate California's iconic old-growth redwoods are incredibly resilient and built to survive fires. But even they may find it harder to rebound amid the mounting impacts of climate change.

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California's Ancient Redwoods Face New Challenge From Wildfires And Warming Climate

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California is still recovering from historic wildfires earlier this year. A lot of them were started by lightning. They displaced people and animals. They burned more than 4 million acres, and they killed at least 33 people. The fires also burned into groves of giant coastal redwoods. Those trees are among the oldest and tallest on the earth, and they are remarkably resilient. But scientists say the trees might face new challenges coming back in a warming climate. Here's NPR's Eric Westervelt.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: In Big Basin Redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains, about 97% of California's oldest state park burned. These days, one of the state's most visited places more resembles a 19th century logging village than a hiking and camping mecca.


WESTERVELT: There's a smell of diesel and sawdust and a near constant buzz of chainsaws and logging skidders as crews busily cut up big charred trees, including some giant redwoods that fell during the fire and ones that officials worry might fall onto the park's roadways.

JOANNE KERBAVAZ: All of the historic structures in the park - totally destroyed, save one residence.

WESTERVELT: Joanne Kerbavaz, a California state park senior environmental scientist, walks through ashes where once stood a log cabin visitors center and museum built during the New Deal.

KERBAVAZ: It's truly tragic from the perspective of all of the generations of people who grew up coming here and enjoying this.

WESTERVELT: The fire also burned through the park's biggest attraction, 18,000 acres of forest. That includes damage to 4,400 acres of iconic old-growth redwoods. Many of them have stood for a thousand years or more. Along Opal Creek, Kerbavaz and I walk across forest ground blackened to a crunch up to what's called a fairy ring, a circle of towering old-growth redwoods with an opening in the middle where an even larger - call it a parent - tree once stood.

KERBAVAZ: A lot of the constituents of this forest are very much able to deal with fire.

WESTERVELT: As we gaze straight up, you see the trees in this ring blackened by fire far up their towering trunks, yet just a few months from the fire, they're also already showing signs of new life.

KERBAVAZ: Even though it is scorched, and there - I'm not so good at measuring that distance from here. But that looks like at least 200 feet up. There are green sprouts coming out of the stems on the side of the tree.

WESTERVELT: Wildfire, of course, is a vital, natural part of forest regeneration - replenishing nutrients and opening paths to new growth. Redwoods have adapted to fire. Their tall crowns capture moisture from fog and mist that helps them survive drought and infernos. But Kerbavaz and other scientists are worried that warmer temperatures with decreased fog and rain are changing the playing field for California's coastal giants.

KERBAVAZ: There are a lot of scientists who are concerned about how climate change will affect the redwood forest. As climate changes, they could be restricted to just areas that really meet their needs - areas that get summer fog, that helps give them extra water and also helps mediate the moisture loss from the temperature.

WESTERVELT: Redwoods and their larger forest ecosystems will now have to bounce back in far hotter, drier conditions than they're used to and in a landscape where drought and fires are more regular, more powerful and more damaging.

GREG ASNER: These issues are recurring so frequently that the system cannot go through some sort of rebound or recovery that we all kind of, in Biology 101, learned about in high school, you know. They're just too frequent.

WESTERVELT: Professor Greg Asner at Arizona State University has studied and mapped the health of California's forests for more than two decades, including tracking from airplanes with high-tech tools just how much water is in trees' canopies, and he says the prognosis overall is not good.

ASNER: Really, it's the fire climate feedback that's really driving this.

WESTERVELT: And the last four years of catastrophic wildfires, Asner says, should be a loud alarm. To save more of the forest, California has to dramatically expand forest thinning, he says, and intentional burning.

ASNER: That's just a must. You know, it's kind of like sacrificing something for the greater good. But without that, it's just all reactive. It's all putting out fire.

WESTERVELT: Walking through Big Basin today, everywhere there are hopeful signs of endurance and resurgence. At the base of a cluster of near-dead tanoak trees, 4-feet-high green offshoots are already jutting skyward. Huckleberry and manzanita bushes are already sprouting. Scientist Joanne Kerbavaz says this iconic park will survive, but it'll probably look different, and so might the redwoods.

KERBAVAZ: I think we can't lose sight. We only have about 5% of the old-growth trees that we had at the time of the gold rush. So we really have to work to protect those, and not just for these trees but for that forest. You can lose a few icons and still keep the forest.

WESTERVELT: Not long after the big fire, Kerbavaz - a 30-year veteran of the state parks - went to one of her favorite spots in the woods for a little inspiration in a tough year. In a grove of old growth that had survived the blaze, she says she stood, taking in the quiet and watching the sunlight come through those giant trees.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Big Basin Redwoods Park.


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