Santa Cruz redwoods are providing priceless lessons on how to save CA forests from climate change

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (KGO) -- As the world focuses on climate change this Earth Day, some experts are arguing that saving the world's forests could offer one of our best chances to reverse the damage.

A dedicated team from the Save the Redwoods League and the Peninsula Open Space Trust are working to protect the majestic grove in the Santa Cruz mountains.

For project manager Susie Petrie and her colleagues, the San Vicente Redwoods are a living laboratory for preserving fire-threatened trees.

"Even though the outer bark is charred and see up on my fingers a little bit, we're having leaves come out throughout the branches," says Petrie pointing to the new growth of one damaged tree.

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The area was ravaged in 2020 when the CZU Lightning Fire roared through the Santa Cruz Mountains. But while the destruction was painful, it's providing priceless lessons for how we can better manage California forests to survive in the age of climate change.

"In the fire resilient species are actually re reemerging coming back to life," Petrie notes.

To help the larger fire resilient trees thrive, crews are carefully thinning out brush. And processing permanently damaged, downed logs in eco-friendly air curtain burners.

"You're basically putting a ton of air into that firebox. So you're kind of superheating the material in there and getting it to burn a lot faster and cleaner," explains manager Sebastian Holmes.

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Redwoods program manager Justin Garland says the clearing efforts have allowed the team to expand shaded fuel breaks across the preserve. The breaks, which are shaded by the canopy of larger trees, are thinned closer to the ground, to slow advancing flames. Their value is visible around San Vicente's horizon, where lightly and heavily burned areas stand side-by-side Garland says the improvements may eventually allow for regularly scheduled prescribed burns to keep the forest's fuel load in check.

"So we couldn't just walk out here, tomorrow and light a prescribed fire, it would be disastrous. So the first step is removing a lot of the material from the landscape," Garland explains.

While the work at San Vicente Redwoods is helping protect the forest from the next major fire, it's only half the goal. Scores of workers and volunteers are also helping the forest regenerate. Teams from THE Save the Redwoods League and other groups involved in managing San Vicente have helped replant seedlings. Still, other researchers are paying close attention to plant species and their natural cycles. Cameras positioned on site, are also providing a window into the wildlife that is steadily returning to the area.

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"Helping us understand what's out here what's using this property. We also have a partnership with the University of California Santa Cruz Puma project to help us understand how mountain lions are moving through the property in the region, as well. So there's a lot of science happening in the background at this property," says Petrie.

It's a living laboratory that's evolving with our understanding of the Redwoods complex ecosystem... and pressures like climate change, fire management, and drought, and learning what it will take to best preserve this spectacular treasure for the future.

You may soon get a chance for a close-up look yourself. Sections of the preserve are scheduled to open for the first time to the public this fall. Including the initial phase of new, multi-use, trails.

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