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Will California's giant redwoods survive the raging wildfires?

Some redwood trees burn near highway 236 in Boulder Creek, California, on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020.
Some redwood trees burn near highway 236 in Boulder Creek, California, on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. (Image credit: Randy Vazquez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

The ancient giants were standing when Jesus was born, and they were still upright when the Normans conquered Britain.

But will the majestic redwoods (opens in new tab) of California's coast survive the lightning-sparked fires raging across the state?

One of the biggest conflagrations in the state, the CZU complex fire in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, has severely damaged Big Basin State Park, which is home to a sprawling stand of these ancient redwoods, SFGate reported (opens in new tab).

Related: Nature's giants: Photos of the tallest trees in the world (opens in new tab)

But though the buildings and campgrounds may be utterly destroyed, the redwood forests themselves are likely to survive. That's because these giant trees possess many defenses against flames, a scientist told Live Science.

In the past week, California experienced nearly 11,000 lightning strikes within a span of 72 hours, California Gov. Gavin Newsom noted on Twitter (opens in new tab). These strikes, combined with the heat wave California is now experiencing, helped trigger hundreds of wildfires (opens in new tab).

Some of these fires have reached the home of the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). Growing to 300 feet (90 meters) or more, they are the tallest known living trees in the world, and "can live up to 2,500 years," said Will Russell, a forest ecologist at San Jose State University in California. He and his family were evacuated from the fires yesterday to a friend's house.

Although some coast redwoods may die from these fires, "many of the old-growth redwoods will likely survive as well," Russell said.


Coast redwoods have thick insulating bark, Russell said. Moreover, their tops, or crowns, are high off the ground, often preserving them from wildfires.

In addition, unlike most conifer trees, coast redwoods do not primarily rely on seeds to reproduce, but often reproduce "vegetatively" from parts of their bodies, "which allows for fast regeneration," Russell said. "They can lose all green leaf tissue from a fire and sprout back vigorously."

Ultimately, fire can actually benefit many forests. They provide fertilizer in the form of nutrient-rich ash and can open up growing space for young trees to grow.

"Fires are a natural part of the coast redwood ecosystem, and old-growth trees have survived many fires over the centuries," Russell said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Charles Q. Choi
Charles Q. Choi
Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for Live Science and He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica.
  • flicker4me2
    The most environmental state in the union is now making the air toxic and unbreathable for half the country. Great job California ECO Warrior democrats, learning nothing from the Paradise and Carr fires, smoking out California with decades of feelgood policies and ignoring science!

    California’s Native American population had for years shaped this landscape with fire. Old Pictures show the first branches on the pine trees started about 20 feet up, lower branches having been burned off by low-intensity grassfires.

    In the not so olden days of 1960's there were small logging communities dotted all over California, which maintained the forests. Then the ECO Tree Huggers went wild and closed them all down, suppressed every small fire, suppressed forest management science and each decade got worse as the fuel load built up. Even dead trees from fires can't be harvested thanks to Eco law suits. Result pine beetles galore and dying trees.

    The last straw two decades ago in California, excess forest fuel load fed renewable biomass powered electric generating plants in California. But air quality concerns led to the closure of many biomass generators. Whoops now look at the air quality.

    Democrats SCIENCE claim climate change is the cause, not their policies. In 2006 the Western Governors’ Association warned that, “…over time the fire-prone forests that were not thinned, burn in uncharacteristically destructive wildfires (SCIENCE!!!).

    Like it or not Trump was correct in his criticism of the role bad environmental policy played in California’s ever worsening wildfire seasons, so remember that this election.
  • FB36
    WELL SAID!!!
  • shaun
    @flicker4me2 That's ridiculous that you would try to make this into a partisan issue.
  • flicker4me2
    I love Big Basin and its campgrounds.
    Science has been politicized in so many ways
    Science that does not say what the politician wants
    Does not get funded next year.
  • bcolorful
    My family came to California in the mid-19th century and worked in the logging industry for three generations.
    Sure, as flicker4me2 says, in the '60's we had timber harvesting and mills around the Sierra and in the coast range. The part of the story he left out was the 1980's, when financiers used junk bonds to take over the logging industry, and greatly accelerated the harvest in order to service their debts. Now, as then, much of the issue comes down to money. We can use controlled burns to thin the forest, or we can use chainsaws, but the small trees and brush we need to remove have no commercial value. So doing the maintenance work that we need is going to cost a LOT of money. Meanwhile, USFS is spending LESS on fire prevention, because they are spending MORE on firefighting.
    So yeah, let's relax the restrictions on controlled burns—we're getting used to the smell of smoke now, right?—and let's rebuild some lumber mills, and have the hard conversation about how many grand old trees we need to cut, in order to defray the cost of the work that needs to happen. But don't tell me that climate change is not driving a lot of this crisis (tree-huggers didn't kill 100 million trees in the Sierra Nevada), and don't tell me that you don't want to spend taxpayer dollars to improve the health of our forests. Chainsaws alone are not the answer.
  • flicker4me2
    Well a reasonable response.

    You said: But don't tell me that climate change is not driving a lot of this crisis (tree-huggers didn't kill 100 million trees in the Sierra Nevada),

    No pine beetles were a major factor in their death, ecologist's policies made their habitat a priority. Clean up after a fire by willing logging companies(willing even to pay for the access) lead to eco law suits stopping work, leaving the ground a veritable insect growing plantation. Colorado has the same problem, drive Highway 70 from Grand Junction to Denver to see the damage from similar policies. Fuel load build up as a result made the ecological fire disasters we see today. The road to hell is paved with good intentions!

    .Throughout history, California has experienced many droughts, such as 1841, 1864, 1924, 1928–1935, 1947–1950, 1959–1960, 1976–1977, 1986–1992, 2006–2010, and 2011–2019. As the most populous state in the United States and a major agricultural producer, drought in California can have a severe economic as well as environmental impact. Drought may be due solely to, or found in combination with, weather conditions; economic or political actions; or population and farming. Talk about bad droughts during a severe drought in the early 1930s, Tahoe's surface level fell below the rim and exposed tree stumps off the beach near South Lake Tahoe, the examined the stumps determined that they had lived for 100 to 150 years before rising water levels submerged them. These trees grew well before California or even the United States were industrialized.

    in the late 13th century, the Anasazi Indians had to abandon their lands due to a terrible long lasting drought, which occurred well before the Industrial Revolution. Global Warming has been around for eternity, but I think our definitions are different, with your placing the majority of blame on man not natural processes. I am all for clean air, clean rivers, responsible management for whatever % we effect the balance.

    A lot of money you cry! More than what we are spending now on fire fighting, lost towns,and massive damage to our eco system? The small logging towns did not cost us money, they employed people, kept fires at bay, provided thinning. and paid taxes. Proper thinning does not have to clear cut the Grand Old tress that are left. Trees are a rotational crop. Legend trees can be ID and protected while new growth that is 50 to 60 years old can be harvested in a thinning manner, under rotation. While deep dark forests can benefit a few animals, open forests properly thinned benefit a majority of animals. Deep dark forest with there heavy fuel load burn so hot they can sterilize the ground. That is why the Indians practiced low slow burns that did not turn into crown (tree tops) fires. With the fuel loads we have now I agree responsible controlled burns are harder to do and more expensive - but what other choice?

    We do have some common ground, and it is clear our policies of the last 60 years have been a disaster of epic proportions. I fear our current fuel loads and cycle of forest fires, then later brush fires maybe with us a long time before we see clean air again.