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Long-Term Impacts Of Wildfire On The Central Coast’s Environmental Jewels

Michelle Loxton
A sign barely standing inside Big Basin Redwoods State Park. The CZU Lightning Complex fire went through this park, which is located in the Santa Cruz Mountains, damaging or destroying over 75 structures.

Wildfires can have a lasting impact on the natural environment. New life can sprout from the ashes, but some things are lost forever. To understand the long-term impacts on the Monterey Bay area, we studied three examples: a beloved park, almost extinct birds and some famous trees.

In early September, KAZU's Michelle Loxton visited Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz mountains. The park is still off limits to the public, but some journalists were allowed in to see what the CZU Lightning Complex had done to this park. 

At that time, the nearby wildfire had not been fully contained and smoke was still thick in the air. It was eerily quiet, except for a lone crow squawking in the distance. Burnt leaves crunched under your shoes as you walked and as far as your eyes could see were charred redwoods.

“The length of the flame when the fire came through here might have been higher than 300 feet,” said Joanne Kerbavaz, a senior environmental scientist for California State Parks.

Credit Michelle Loxton.
Joanne Kerbavaz, a senior environmental scientist for California State Parks, stands next to one of the massive redwoods that has been charred by wildfire. Some of the flames, "might have been higher than 300 feet," she said.

“That has scorched the sides of these trees and reached up into the canopy,” Kerbavaz added.

She’s standing close to where the park’s headquarters once stood. Built in the 1930s, all that’s left now is the stone chimney. It’s one of over 75 structures damaged or destroyed.

Credit Michelle Loxton.
All that's left of the park's headquarters is the chimney. The building dates back to the 1930s.

“Many of the trees have fallen down. And that is because even the redwoods, that are notorious for being able to both resist and be resilient from impact, can't resist the fire eating away at some of the wood that's their means of support,” said Kerbavaz.

She isn't worried though about the long-term impacts of this blaze on the redwoods. She said they are one of the few evergreens that can sprout throughout the trunk and base. 

Credit Michelle Loxton.
A massive redwood has collapsed and fallen in the park. Redwoods are famous for being able to both resist and be resilient from wildfire impact. But they can't resist the fire eating away at some of the wood, which supports the trees.

“The tree can die. But all of his identical twins are still alive and can produce new stems from the same root system,” said Kerbavaz. 

Further south in Big Sur there isn’t this much optimism. The Dolan Fire isn’t contained yet but the consequences on this region’s California Condor population is already very apparent.

Of all the condors the Ventana Wildfire Society tracks, two of eight chicks perished in the fire. And nine free-flying condors remain missing. 

“Just a bit of background, up until the Dolan fire, only seven condors had died in wildfire in the last 25 years or so,” saidKelly Sorenson, the society’s executive director.  

Credit Ventana Wildlife Society.
Central Coast California condors pictured before the Dolan Fire.

“And if we do lose nine or 10 condors out of the hundred that we had to begin with, you know, that's a 10 percent reduction almost overnight,” Sorenson added.

In 1982 the California Condor population was at an all time low of just 22 birds. It’s taken captive breeding programs and decades of work to bring them back from extinction. 

The Dolan Fire was the worst case scenario for these birds. The fire started near their sanctuary at night, said Sorenson, and because condors are diurnal, meaning they don’t fly at night, they were unable to escape. 

The loss to those who have cared for these missing birds is immense. 

Credit Ventana Wildlife Society.
23-year-old Kingpin, or Condor 167, pictured before he went missing during the Dolan Fire.

“Well, it's hard not to be attached to our elder, Condor 167, named Kingpin, 23-year-old male. Literally has been out in the wild since we have been releasing condors,” said Sorenson.

North of Big Sur is what Bryan Flores calls the crown jewel of the Monterey County park system -- Toro Park. About three-quarters of this over 4,000 acre open space was scorched in the River Fire. The damage is the worst on the ridges and peaks. 

“So trees, shrubs, everything's gone. It looks like the surface of the moon,” said Flores, the operations manager for Monterey County Parks. 


I connected with him over Zoom soon after the park had announced its indefinite closure. He hiked up to one of the ridges so he could give us a panoramic view of the damage. Birds are chirping in the background and he said some turkey vultures were keeping an eye on him. 

Credit Bryan Flores.
One of the scorched ridges in Toro Park. Bryan Flores, operations manager for Monterey County Parks, described them as looking like the surface of the moon.

“I can basically see all the way down to the front gate from this area and, you know, breaks my heart. But it's all black,” said Flores. 

Toro Park, which can see a few thousand visitors on a slow day, is expected to remain closed into next year because it's just too dangerous for the public to visit. 

“Lots of hazard trees, trees that burned and are just barely hanging on. And Cal Fire has been great about marking those trees with tape that actually says killer tree and has a skull and crossbones on it,” said Flores. 

Also, any extra foot or bicycle traffic can exacerbate soil erosion and damage plants that are trying to make their way back. 

Credit Bryan Flores.
A lonely picnic table in Toro Park just escaped the flames of the River Fire.

But out of the ash comes… a wishlist. Flores said they’re rebuilding with a blank slate. New trails can be developed in places where it might not have been possible before, because the brush was once too dense. And it’s going to be a community effort. He gets emotional talking about it. 

“Sorry I'm getting a little choked up talking about the park. But, you know, we want people just to have that connection. And I think it's just going to be such a stronger connection for the community once they help us rebuild this jewel,” Flores said.


From 2019 to 2021 Michelle Loxton worked at KAZU as an All Things Considered host and reporter. During that time she reported on a variety of topics from the coronavirus pandemic, the opioid epidemic and local elections. Loxton was part of the news team that won a Regional Edward R. Murrow Award for the continued coverage of the four major wildfires that engulfed California’s Central Coast in 2020.