Study shows why CA redwoods are so resilient in wake of damaging wildfires

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Thursday, December 7, 2023
Here's why CA redwoods are so resilient in wake of wildfires
A new study shows us why California redwoods are still regrowing after destructive wildfires in Santa Cruz County.

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY, Calif. (KGO) -- The beautiful redwoods of Big Basin State Park may never be the same, but they still stand tall and are regrowing after the CZU Lightning Complex fires of 2020. What researchers wanted to know was: Why?

They found decades-old carbon reserves and thousands of years-old buds are the reason they survived.

"You know, it wasn't clear initially if they were going to survive," Biologist Drew Peltier said. "There's not really a precedent for this kind of event. You know, my first impression was that this park was destroyed. But pretty quickly, it became apparent that a lot of those trees had actually survived."

Peltier and a team from the Save the Redwoods League and Northern Arizona visited the park in 2021 to study their resiliency.

MORE: Strategic management helps protect redwoods from future wildfires in Santa Cruz Mountains

They knew that some of the biggest redwoods have up to a foot thick of bark to protect the insides of the tree.

And when it comes to fighting against fires, the study learned what's on the inside matters.

"Trees produce sugars from photosynthesis and then they have two choices," Peltier said. "They can use it for growth or metabolism or something, or they can store it for later. They have these really old, 50-to-100-year old carbon reserves that have accumulated for many decades that they can draw upon to build new leaves and do new photosynthesis."

That's what we saw when we visited the park: new life from what some experts thought was the death of the tree.

The new sprouts coming from what's known as a "bud trace," a line that runs from inside the tree to the surface that can lead to new leaves.

MORE: Here's how trust team is working together to restore Presidio Forest in SF

Peltier says in a biological anticipation of an event like the wildfires, some of these trees grew the bud traces thousands of years ago.

So in some ways, the trees were actually more prepared for the fire than we were.

"Yeah, and that's actually the surprise," Peltier said. "The trees, actually, they were able to survive it and able to recover. They're not going to look the same as they did in the past and it's going to be awhile. As to whether or not they'll survive, it seems like they're doing okay. But perhaps they'll be more sensitive to drought or definitely a repeat fire. So those are the things that we would hope to avoid for them."

Climate change may make it harder on these trees, but we're learning they remain equipped to survive for the long haul.

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