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Hundreds of Trees Burned at Big Basin Redwoods State Park

SACRAMENTO — Towering over the coast, straining for sun as they’ve done since before there was such a thing as California, the old-growth giants of Big Basin Redwoods State Park stood in flames on Friday. John Gallagher thought of his sons. Darryl Young thought of his father. Laura McLendon thought of her wedding day.

“It was evening and the sun was just starting to slant through the trees,” said Ms. McLendon, a conservationist in San Francisco who married her husband in the park three years ago next week. “We could hear birds. It was magical. Like a time out of time.”

Now the 118-year-old state park, California’s oldest — the place where Mr. Gallagher hiked with his children in June, where Mr. Young learned to camp in his childhood, and where Ms. McLendon repeated her vows in a stand of 500-year-old redwoods — has been devastated. Park officials closed it on Wednesday, another casualty of the wildfires that have wracked the state with a vengeance that has grown more apocalyptic every year.

From the Southern California deserts to the Sierra Nevada to the vineyards and movie sets and architectural landmarks left by modern mortals, little of the state has been left unscathed by wildfire. In the past several years, infernos have scorched the Yosemite Valley, blackened the Joshua Tree National Park’s palm-strewn Oasis of Mara, damaged the Paramount Ranch and eviscerated Malibu summer camps beloved for generations.

Scars now pockmark the state, with more to come, according to fire officials. Burning across more than 771,000 acres, this week’s fires have largely stemmed from an extraordinary spate of dry lightning. As of Friday, there were some 560 blazes, about two dozen of them major.

Smoke has worsened an already oppressive heat wave, the electrical grid has struggled to keep up with demand and the coronavirus has threatened illness in evacuation shelters.

At least five deaths have been linked to the fires, which have forced more than 100,000 people out of their homes, filled the skies with thick smoke and consumed hundreds of dwellings. More evacuation orders were issued on Friday, including along parts of the Russian River near Santa Rosa.

And in a state that has historically preferred to focus on resurrection, the catalog of loss has again expanded, with the heartbreaking news from Big Basin at the top.

“I just can’t believe it,” said Mr. Gallagher, an employment lawyer in Malvern, Pa., who on Friday tweeted a series of photos from when he visited the park months ago with his 24-year-old twins, Sam and Charlie. In the pictures, blue sky peeks through a green canopy at the far, far top of skyscraper-tall tree trunks and one of his sons perches on a fallen tree, looking at a map, his leg dangling.

Spanning 18,000 acres north of Santa Cruz, the park is home to the largest continuous stand of old-growth coast redwoods south of San Francisco, and was created in 1902 during a statewide movement to save forests that were being razed as California boomed in the decades after the Gold Rush. Its giant trees were the backdrop in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” as Kim Novak strolled with James Stewart, and its headquarters, a one-story building built in 1936 from stone and redwood logs, are included in the National Register of Historic Places.

California’s Department of Parks and Recreation said on Wednesday that the park had sustained “extensive damage,” including to its headquarters, “historic core” and campgrounds.

“There was a stump, right when you got there, like four feet wide,” Mr. Gallagher said. “Two thousand years old. I took seven pictures. The rings are, like, ‘Birth of Christ.’ ‘Birth of Hammurabi.’”

His family, avid hikers, walked all the way to the top of the coastal ridge, just to soak in the landscape.

“The canopy, the scope, the trees — it was breathtaking,” Mr. Gallagher said. “As a human. A mere human. Right?”

In Washington, D.C., the news from the park hit Mr. Young like “a gut punch.” Now 59, he was 7, he said, when he first visited Big Basin on a trip with his father, Warren. He remembered his father buying him a pocketknife, teaching him to camp and helping him build a fire.

In recent years, Mr. Young said, he frequented the park with his mother, flying back from his job to his hometown, Sunnyvale, Calif., to visit her and wander among the towering redwoods. Both his parents have died — his mother, Maureen, just last month — but Big Basin remained a “touchstone.”

“It’s hard,” he said, “to see your memories burn.”

For Daniel Ransom, Big Basin had become a familiar pilgrimage. He first visited as a 19-year-old, backpacking with a friend along the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, which meanders through the park.

“It really felt like this coming-of-age thing,” Mr. Ransom, a librarian in San Francisco, said. Mr. Ransom, 43, has returned to the park twice with his wife and two children, and watched as his children explored among the redwoods and encountered the Berry Creek waterfall.

“It was a real lovely nostalgia moment,” Mr. Ransom said of his recent visit. “Of course, I didn’t realize that was the last time I’d get to look at those buildings.”

Martha Hughes experienced Big Basin for the first time as an athlete, running a marathon in 2018 on the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail.

“It’s just this amazing, magical place,” she said. Ms. Hughes, 61, said she had planned to return to Big Basin next week to again run amid the redwoods — until the fires swept in.

Kristen Shive, a scientist for Save the Redwoods League, a nonprofit group, was cautiously optimistic about the fate of the beloved conifers, though she emphasized that she was speculating because she has not been able to examine the state of Big Basin.

Redwoods are “pretty resilient,” Ms. Shive said. The oldest trees have insulating bark that can be a foot thick and do not usually have many branches near the forest floor, which helps to prevent the fire’s spread.

The most at-risk trees, she said, were those that had suffered repeated fire damage over the thousands of years that they have been alive. Trees with enough accumulated structural damage could have toppled over, Ms. Shive said.

Though some redwoods, which have remarkable rejuvenating abilities, may be able to survive the flames, Ms. Shive cautioned that trees that were scorched will not look the same. Their trunks might be intact, but some tree crowns — the tops — were likely incinerated and will take years to regrow.

Randy Vazquez, a photographer and videographer for The Mercury News in San Jose, said he and his colleague Ethan Baron hiked five miles along a road clogged with downed trees and branches to survey the devastation in Big Basin.

The park’s headquarters were completely destroyed, he said. Some trees were still smoldering, some were missing their crowns, and others’ trunks had been felled by the flames.

“You see it downed and it’s just crazy that something like that can even exist and something like that can go down in a blaze,” Mr. Vazquez said.

Ms. McLendon, the woman who got married in the park, said she had experienced a kind of grief as she awaited more detailed news of Big Basin’s condition. As conservation director for the Sempervirens Fund, a nonprofit group dedicated to the preservation of the redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains and intimately involved in supporting Big Basin, she said, “the trees are like old friends to me.”

While examining her wedding photos, her heart ached. The fire, she has been told, razed all the nearby manmade structures. But a closer look revealed hope.

“There were burn scars on the trees,” she said. “Old ones. It’s easy to forget. There’s so much greenery.”

Shawn Hubler reported from Sacramento, and Kellen Browning from Berkeley, Calif. Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs contributed reporting from New York.

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