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As I drove up Alba Road, venturing into last summer’s CZU fire zone eight months on by Peggy Edwards

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

Today I ventured into last summer’s CZU (Santa Cruz Unit) fire zone for the first time. The fires began last August after a series of freak lightning strikes pummelled the Santa Cruz Mountains and soon merged into a mega fire that burned for 38 days (we were evacuated for 14 of those) through 86,509 acres (35,009 ha) of forest land and destroying over 7000 houses and structures. Of course, I had seen photos of the damage, but nothing prepared me for the reality of the burn.

Leaving home around noon, I drove to Ben Lomond and turned up Alba Road (several towns and geographical features in this area were named after places in Scotland by the early settlers: Rowardennan, Ben Lomond, Bonny Doon, Alba, St Andrews, Bracken Brae, Highland Park, etc.)

I have driven Alba many times over the years. It winds up from the San Lorenzo Valley into the Santa Cruz Mountains to an elevation of about 2500’ twisting and turning through forests of coast redwood, tan oak, madrone and Douglas fir. I didn't recognize a thing.

Video above: Driving from Alba School House to Empire Grade (cc BenatBoardwalk)

The entire forest was burned with the overwhelming colours of black trees and brown dead leaves. Tree cutting crews with heavy machinery were working away at clearing the deadwood which reduced the road to one lane controlled by a man at either end with Stop and Slow signs.

Photos: from the The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection

I passed the spot where once stood the little red Alba Schoolhouse, the last remaining one-room school in Santa Cruz County built in 1895. I drove right past it, not even recognizing the location with all the stacked logs and trucks here and there. All the way up to Empire Grade I passed hundreds upon hundreds of burned trees and flat places where houses once stood, burned redwood water tanks, burned cars, these the only ones remaining, the others having been hauled away over the winter.

Photos: Top Row: Alba Schoolhouse before and the site after. Bottom row: various photos of fire damage (cc Peggy Edwards).

Turning north on Empire Grade I drove past the local Christmas tree ranch, its openings filled with dead Christmas trees and piles of shredded wood from those that were being chipped. I kept going north until I got to the old Locatelli Ranch and winery, its buildings gone. Towering to the east Eagle Rock was actually visible, the trees on its flanks burned to black trunks.But then … south of the ranch I saw a meadow bathed in green spring grass that contained a grove of huge live oaks, not burned at all.

And turning east I noticed that the grass below Eagle Rock was filled with poppies and the rocky outcrops purple with Dichelostemma – what we call bluedicks - plants that had gone to seed before the fires hit and so were just waiting for the winter rains to come.

Photos: Landscape rejuvenation (cc Peggy Edwards)

Like these, many of the plants in this area are fire adapted, the redwoods, oaks and shrubs sprout from their bases, the serotinous (closed-cone) pines and cypresses may die but their cones open up during fires scattering their seeds to start a new generation of trees and the wildflowers sprout into meadows of yellow and blue.

The last fire to pass through the property at the base of the mountains on which I live came through in 1929 just missing my grandparents’ home and leaving the larger redwoods with permanently blackened and sometimes hollow trunks. The knobcone pines were all burned but their seeds sprouted on the ridge above my home where I can see them to this day patiently waiting for the next fire to open their cones and scatter their seeds.

Turning home, I couldn’t help but feel a great sense of sadness. The mountains I grew up knowing will never be the same in my lifetime. Twenty, thirty years from now they may begin to resemble what they once were, when the new seedlings grow taller and the foliage of those redwoods that survived fills in again.

Photos above: showing the burnt redwoods rejuvenating (cc Peggy Edwards)

The mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes and wild turkeys that fled the fires and are now living in our neighbourhoods (much to the cautious delight of the local people) will gradually return to the forest (unless they find that water and food is easier to come by on the forest’s edge!).

Photos of a coyote, a wild turkey and a bobcat (cc Peggy Edwards)

The concern of course, is climate change. This year we are experiencing another drought with only 50% of our average rainfall, so the already fire-stressed trees will have an even harder time bringing back what life is left in them. We normally receive about as much rain as Scotland but ours is a Mediterranean climate so the rains only fall between October and April. And for now, it has stopped.

The big picture concern for all of California’s redwoods is that too many years of drought may force populations of coast redwoods SESE and Sierra redwoods SEGI to gradually lose their southern populations. The redwood groves are already remnants from before the Ice Ages when the species were spread throughout the continent.

Photos above (left to right) : Grandma Edward's Redwood, Edward's Redwood Grove and a redwood re-seedling (cc Peggy Edwards)

When you hear someone call the redwoods that grow in Scotland ex-situ populations, it means that they are living packets of genetic material from California groves. Groves that might well continue to be threatened if the trees’ native habitat continues to burn and suffer from drought.

Hopefully with better forest management Californians can face the fires of the future with more wisdom than we’ve faced them in the past. And who knows what next year’s rains will bring? Meanwhile it’s good to know that as of today there are at least 2800 Sierra redwoods and nearly 600 coast redwoods happily growing in Scotland.

Written by Peggy Edwards, April 2021

Peggy Edwards is a botanical illustrator and redwood aficionado. She has a BS from the University of California, Berkeley and a Graduate Certificate Natural Science Illustration from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has been a field Botanist, Naturalist and K-12 Teacher. She is one of the co-founders of the Scottish Redwood Trust.

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My relatives in NSW described a similar experience driving inland from the coast ( the blaze turned 2 1/4 miles from their location by the sea) to Canberra. Miles of desolation, destruction and death. The biggest danger post fire was the now toxic water supplies feeding down from the mountains into the coastal regions.

But it's come back remarkably quickly. Yes it will take time, but already vegetative and animal life has returned to the burned regions.

Quite remarkable.

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