A Burned Redwood Forest Tells a Story of Climate Change, Past, Present and Future

A Burned Redwood Forest Tells a Story of Climate Change, Past, Present and Future

Shannon Behrman: This is scientific American’s 60-second science. I’m Shannon Behrman.

Sarah Goodwin I’m Sarah Goodwin

[Sound of Big Basin ]

Behrman You’re hearing the sound of a redwood forest after it has been ravaged by a wildfire.

It’s quiet, except for the sound of our footsteps.

Goodwin: We recorded those sounds in the spring of 2021.

Nine months after a devastating forest fire swept through California’s Big Basin Redwood State Park.

Behrman: The flames left the redwood trees charred but still mostly alive.

The rest of the life that usually animates the forest was gone.

You can hear it…in the silence.

[Sounds of footsteps walking through the parks]

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There’s always been a fire season in California in the late summer and fall.

But it’s getting longer. It’s worse. It’s worse. nodenying climate change .

Behrman: 2022 has been another year of drought for the American west and that means that, until the winter rains come in force, there’s still a risk for fire.

Goodwin: California forests burned frequently until about a hundred years ago when across the west, a new approach to fire emerged in the name of conservation: suppression.

As in fire was bad — a destructive force to be avoided at all costs.

Goodwin But thousands of years worth of climate history have shown that fire has always been part of this landscape.

We see it in the tree rings from the ancient redwoods.

Fire helps keep these forests healthy, vibrant, and vibrant.

The native people who lived in these forests prior to colonization seemed intuitively to have understood this.

Don Hankins We think about indigenous cultural perspectives, such as the frequency of fire and the stewardship for those landscapes.

Goodwin Don Hankins, a scientist, studies the interplay of fire, nature, people. He is also a member the plains Miwok tribe.

Hankins California’s history of removing fire from its coastal landscapes is at least partially due to early Spanish settlement.

When we think about some of the first policies within the state, that limited the extent of where indigenous people could engage with fire, that policy initially came out around 1793 from a proclamation from the Spanish governor of California that forbid indigenous people from using fire. That spread from Santa Barbara to other places.

Goodwin Hankins conducted research into the native practices of the area before Europeans arrived.

Hankins – Ohlone Peoples in, this region, would have been living in this landscape, and using these diverse ecosystems from the wetlands, the grasslands to the different oak forests and conifer forests, and each have their own time frames for when fire would be appropriate

Goodwin Hankins said that they would be involved in the management of the ecosystem if the timing was right.

Hankins Some places, as I said, would burn fairly frequently. People would notice that the grass’ health is declining. We must burn or there will be too much litter on the forest floor.

With this policy, people could not burn because they were subject to severe penalties for setting fires.

Behrman Now we see the folly in fire suppression in big basins and elsewhere.

I spoke to Portia Halbert about Big Basin State Park’s chief environmental scientist.

She was present when the fire started.

Behrman It was amazing how quickly the fire started to spread. What was the Big Basin fire like? What was the fire that broke out?

Portia Halbert This area of California is the coastal central and Northern California. Our summers are foggy and cool. I don’t like to wear my swimsuit when I go to the beaches. I wear a wool sweater a lot. It was unseasonably hot the day the fire was lit. It was probably in the low nineties, it was sunny, and it was hot.

Behrman This set the stage for a great fire. But how did it all start?

Halbert This led to conditions that made it possible for us to have a dry lightning event. We had lightning strikes. I think there was something like 11,000 of them that quickly started fires everywhere around the mountains. These massive smoke columns could be seen.

We had a wind pickup from the Northwest. It took the three fires around Big Basin and pushed. It just pushed the fire through the park.

Behrman Where did it all end?

Halbert With the state’s current suppression resources, we were unable to contain the fires. We were saved by the fog moving in six days after the fire started. Our normal weather pattern was back. The marine influence, which brings cool moist air from oceans, is keeping the fire lit relatively mild.

Christian Schwartz: It was my belief that Big Basin would never be able to burn.

Goodwin: That’s Christian Schwarz.

After the Big Basin wildfire, he spent much of his time crawling around with only a few inches of the scorched earth.

That’s his job as a mycologist. The stories he tells about the mushrooms he studies on the forest floor are also part of his story.

Schwarz On my first visit back to Big Basin following the fire, only a few species of mushrooms were found. However, the ones that were there were in incredible volumes and amazing quantities of biomass. They are fire responders, or species that can tolerate fire, and were actually stimulated by it.

Goodwin This is all part of the recovery, but it’s not possible to predict what will emerge at the big basin in the decades ahead.

Schwarz: Literally 95% of the park burning, left me realizing that there is no climate outcome that is impossible to imagine. The worst thing I could have imagined happened. Climate change is here.

It is a past tense verb. Climate changed.

Behrman: The reporting for this podcast came from work that Sarah and I did as part of the Science Communication Lab. We are a non-profit organization that is committed to science storytelling.

Goodwin: the interviews used where gathered as part of short documentary film called “Fire Among Giants” which you can see at scientificamerican.com.

Behrman We want to thank Don, Portia and Christian for their time in this project. We also want to thank you all for your listening.

Goodwin: For Scientific American’s 60-Second Science, I’m Sarah Goodwin.

Behrman And i’m Shannon Behrman.

[ The transcript of this podcast is available below.

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