Big Basin Redwoods State Park to Stay Closed for a Year as Wildfires Ravage California

Fire burns in the hollow of an old-growth redwood tree in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Calif., on Aug. 24. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

(CN) — A victim of rare summer thunderstorms that besieged Northern California on all sides with smoke and flames, California’s oldest state park with its majestic old-growth redwoods will remain closed for at least another year.

The revelation came Tuesday after Governor Gavin Newsom, along with federal and state officials, surveyed wildfire damage caused to Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains. With trees still smoldering over two weeks after the wildfire ignited, the officials walked through the park’s famous “Auto Tree” and toured a burnt-out former visitor’s center and amphitheater.

“If this is not a gut punch, then you’re not truly conscious as a human being,” Newsom told reporters.

The blaze responsible for the closure is the CZU Lightning Complex burning in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties. One of hundreds that ignited in the San Francisco Bay Area after a mid-August dry-lightning siege, the CZU Fire has become the latest poster child for climate change in the nation’s most populous state.

The coastal wildfire caused the evacuation of more than 75,000 residents along with the University of California, Santa Cruz, and has burned nearly 1,5000 structures. Aided by a record heatwave and the disappearance of the region’s usually reliable marine layer, the fire has charred dense coastal forests that haven’t seen a major wildfire in decades and burned west all the way to the sandy beaches of Santa Cruz.

Two weeks since its ignition, the CZU Fire has burned over 85,000 acres and is 43% contained as of Tuesday. 

While experts believe most of Big Basin’s majestic redwoods have withstood the fire, the forest itself remains badly burned and full of potential hazards for visitors. As a result, the park will stay closed to the public for at least 12 months, according to Chris Spohrer, a state parks superintendent who led Tuesday’s tour.

Spohrer explained that park officials will need to determine whether damaged trees need to be removed in the coming months and that the resulting fire scars will increase the potential for floods and mudslides this winter.

“My heart really does break,” Spohrer told the press pool reporter of witnessing the damage to the park founded in 1902. “The memories here. The generational commitment … this is a really meaningful place to all of us.”  

Newsom was also joined on the Big Basin tour by the head of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Thom Porter as well as Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Peter Gaynor.

California’s wildfire season is off to a blistering start as the state has already seen more than 900 new fires since the mass-lightning event that started on Aug. 15. Over 15,600 firefighters are currently battling the blazes that have burned 1.48 million acres, an area the size of Delaware.  

In welcome news, crews have been able to take advantage in recent days of cooler weather and greatly increased containment over the CZU Fire and the state’s other major fires.

The state’s main focus has been several so-called lightning complex fires burning in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. A trio of fires caused over 100,000 people to temporarily flee their homes and simultaneously left millions breathing smoky, unhealthy air.

At over 375,000 acres burned, the LNU Lightning Complex Fire is now officially the third largest fire in state history. Over 2,700 firefighters have been assigned to the blaze which has killed five and destroyed 1200 homes and structures in Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Solano and Yolo counties. As of Tuesday, the LNU Fire was 69% contained.

To the southeast, the SCU Fire has blackened 390,000 acres and destroyed 120 structures in San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa and Merced counties. Nearly two dozen crews and 1,700 firefighters have the second largest fire in state history 70% contained.

In another lightning complex burning north of the Bay Area, the Butte/Tehama/Glenn Fire has burned 60,000 acres on state and federal land. Recent north winds have funneled smoke from the fire south, diminishing already poor air quality that has plagued Sacramento and the Bay Area for over two weeks.Meanwhile a companion fire burning in Tehama County, the August Complex, has grown to 242,000 acres in the Mendocino National Forest. Federal crews have the fire 20% contained, but one firefighter died and another was injured on Monday fighting the complex.

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