Sunday’s Big Basin fire “part of the natural process,” State Parks scientist says

BIG BASIN — Embers from a burning redwood root, a remnant of August’s CZU Lightning Complex fire, found their way to the surface in Big Basin State Park, and reignited according to Cal Fire officials, resulting in a 6.5 acre fire which sparked on Sunday.

Locals and outdoor enthusiasts alike held their breath over the weekend, but crews contained the fire, which burned well within the interior of the park, according to Joanne Kerbavaz, a senior environmental scientists with California State Parks Santa Cruz District.

These types of small blazes can actually be beneficial to Santa Cruz forests, explained Kerbavaz.

“This really is part of the natural process, and there is value in having natural fire,” Kerbavaz said.

Small, slow-moving fire that creeps along the forest floor can have a rejuvenating effect, particularly in ecosystems that are fire-adapted.

“Anytime there’s a fire on the ground, it has the opportunity to remove excess fuel and to create new space for germination of seeds and increased growth of existing trees,” Kerbavaz said.

According to a 2005 UC Berkeley research paper, this type of healthy fire was common in the Santa Cruz Mountains prior to the 19th century.

Prescribed burning, a tool wielded by Indigenous peoples living in the Santa Cruz region, was banned by Mexican and European settlers around that time. That burning was a strategy to manage lands, grow foods, medicines and materials, according to Amah Mustun Tribal Band Chairman, Valentin Lopez. It also kept fires like the CZU Complex from burning, and is a spiritual practice.

Burns prevent build up of fuel, which in turn, prevent wildfires that can result in loss of life, or property.

Kerbavaz wasn’t surprised at the CZU Lightning Complex fire reignition — there have been a few smaller fires that have sparked the same way in Big Basin since the August blaze, she said.

“This is the reality in the redwood forest, we knew it was possible for fire to linger in downed logs and trees, themselves,” Kerbavaz  said.

In September 1904, embers from a fire that burned in Big Basin reignited in a redwood stump twice: seven months after the blaze, and another reburn occurred 14 months later in November 1905, according to the Mountain Echo newspaper.

“Looking back at reports in the 1904 fire in Big Basin, it was the same thing, there were accounts in the press of the public being surprised at the rekindling event months and months after the fire,” Kerbavaz said.

Cal Fire CZU San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit Chief Ian Larkin echoed Kerbavaz, saying the small blaze consumed leaf litter and light debris that were shed by fire-damaged trees over the winter months.

The 6.5 acre fire smoldered on Monday, as crews continued to work to control the blaze, which burned in a deep interior area of Big Basin State Park, pictured here. (Contributed photo – Tim Hyland © California State Parks, all rights reserved) 

“It’s cleaning up the forest floor in this low intensity, understory burn, it continues to do what a prescribed burn does,” Larkin said. “Do I feel that it has a benefit? I do, but it’s concerning because we’re so dry already.”

According to the U.S. drought monitor, Santa Cruz County progressed from a “moderate” drought, to severe on April 20th. As the Sentinel reported in April, the Santa Cruz region has only received a little more than half of it’s yearly average rainfall during this year’s wet season.

According to Larkin, those conditions make a ripe opportunity for small fires, to blow up into dangerous blazes, if winds come into play.

While last year’s CZU Complex was declared controlled on Dec. 28, the possibility remains that 8-month-old embers could reignite.

“When we called it controlled that doesn’t necessarily mean we put out every square inch of potential fire in the 86,000 acre perimeter. There may still be hot spots well into the interior that may not be feasible or attainable to put crews in there,” Larkin said.

While normally, winter rains would have done this type of work for firefighting crews, Larkin said that was not the case this season.

The Cal Fire Chief said for staff it’s been non-stop since the CZU Complex.

“Our crews have been working year round, we really haven’t had a break this year,” Larkin said. “In January we had 100 acres burned in the unit, we committed all our crews to that, and we continue to have these little burns that have not given them a break.”

Cal Fire plans to fly a plane over the burn area and conduct an infrared survey over the CZU Complex burn scar to determine where embers and heat may be latent. Larkin said he hopes to send crews out to those spots before before conditions become hotter and drier.

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Author: Hannah Hagemann