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Wildfire damages much of Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Fate of big trees unknown

Andrew Walsh of Ben Lomond, Calif., explores a hollow tree with son Philip, 2, in Big Basin Redwoods State Park in 2019.
Andrew Walsh of Ben Lomond, Calif., explores a hollow tree with son Philip, 2, in Big Basin Redwoods State Park in September 2019.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

A raging wildfire has inflicted serious damage on Big Basin Redwoods State Park northeast of Santa Cruz, prompting a conservation group on Thursday to openly mourn the loss of California’s oldest state park.

“We are devastated to report that Big Basin, as we have known it, loved it, and cherished it for generations, is gone,” said the Sempervirens Fund in a statement. “Early reports are that the wildfire has consumed much of the park’s historic facilities. We do not yet know the fate of the park’s grandest old trees.”

California State Parks confirmed in a news release that the park “sustained extensive damage” Tuesday from the C.Z.U. August Lightning Complex fires and would be closed until further notice.

“The fire damaged the park’s headquarters, historic core and campgrounds,” said the statement. “Staff are currently assessing the damage cause by the fire to state park property and we do not know the number of acres burned within the park right now.”

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As of Thursday morning, the C.Z.U. August Lightning Complex fires had burned 40,000 acres, forced the evacuation of more than 22,000 people and prompted authorities to issue an evacuation warning for UC Santa Cruz and Scotts Valley.

Originally called California Redwood Park, Big Basin was created in 1902 amid a statewide movement to protect California’s ancient redwoods, a campaign that included the Sempervirens Fund. The park originally was 3,800 acres and now is roughly 18,000 acres.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Fires have extensively damaged structures at California’s oldest state park, but it is not yet known if Big Basin’s ancient redwoods were seriously harmed.
(Mark Barnes / Santa Cruz County Conference and Visitors Council)

Over the decades, Big Basin became one of the state’s most popular parks, with miles of trails amid the towering trees, camp sites and cabins and an amphitheater built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. According to state officials, many if not all of the park’s historic buildings, including its headquarters, have been destroyed.

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Andrew Walsh of Ben Lomond walks with his boys along a trail in Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
Andrew Walsh of Ben Lomond, Calif., walks with his boys, Philip, 2, right, and Thomas, 4, center, along a trail in Big Basin Redwoods State Park on Sept. 5, 2019.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Hollywood has long had an affinity for Big Basin park. It was a stand-in for Muir Woods in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” as James Stewart walked with Kim Novak among the giant trees. It was also a stand-in for Redwood National Park in the 1967 Disney film “The Gnome-Mobile.”

As the Sempervirens Fund notes, Big Basin has burned before. Reporting on a 1904 fire, the New York Times reported that Big Basin, “which contains some of the largest and finest redwoods trees in the State, seems doomed for destruction.”

But the park and forest recovered, and the conservation group is hopeful it will again, despite the challenges of a warming climate that is sparking more intense wildfires.

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“We are confident that it will be reborn from the ashes and once again be a place that inspires and educates people from around the world,” the group said.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park near Santa Cruz, in better days.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park near Santa Cruz, in better days.
(Allie Caulfield / Wikimedia Commons)

“When Big Basin was first established, it was the catalyst for a conservation movement and a park system that were groundbreaking. In rebuilding Big Basin, we hope it is a catalyst for a new movement, one in which we learn to coexist with wildfire and deal directly with the impacts of climate change.”


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