SANTA CRUZ COUNTY, Calif. (KGO) -- For Susie Petrie, a senior project manager with the Peninsula Open Space Trust, walking pathways into the San Vicente Redwoods is like following a wildfire roadmap. The charred tree tops mark the twists and turns of the ferocious CZU blaze that roared through the Santa Cruz Mountains three years ago.
"So, the Doug fir, the Coulter pine that was here, all cooked," Petrie said, pointing to the wildfire damage. "So we don't have any live trees left in these areas. And you can see because these trees are dead, they don't have leaves anymore, exposing the surface, the ground surface to a lot of sunlight."
And beyond the destruction, the CZU fire has also brought profound changes to San Vicente. Petrie, says the disaster has accelerated growth along the forest floor. Native plants are regenerating and recreating habitats for wildlife.
"So it's a really unique opportunity for people who are visiting to come see how fire changed the landscape and how it's progressing over time," Petrie said. "The plant and animal community around us is evolved and adapted for this type of disturbance, this type of fire, and it's humans now that are trying to catch up and respond."
To prepare for future wildfire threats, managers at San Vicente have concentrated on balancing the forest itself, clearing out dead trees to strategically thin certain areas. And since the CZU fire, crews have also worked to create what's known as shaded fuel breaks.
"Those typically are a way to reduce the fuel load in the understory. So a lot of the kind of smaller brush and smaller plants, clearing those out, while leaving what's left of the healthy, intact canopy above to shade out those areas, keep things cool, slow down the regrowth of species and still provide those kinds of habitat benefits for birds, insects and everything in between," explains Ian Rowbotham, a senior land manager with the Sempervirens Fund, which shares management responsibilities for San Vicente.
The shaded fuel break work at San Vicente Redwoods is paid for through grants from CAL FIRE, California Coastal Conservancy, and Department of Conservation.
This fall, the team is planning to employ yet another forest management technique, a prescribed burn, to further reduce the fuel load.
"So one of the key goals with prescribed burning is you're trying to thin out a lot of that understory growth with the fire," Rowbotham said. "So it's really a low intensity burn where you're trying to not only reduce the fuel loading on the landscape, but also open up growing space for all sorts of species."
Back on the trail, hikers can see the evidence of the technique's effectiveness. Areas that were thinned by controlled burns before the 2020 CZU stand in lush contrast to stands of blackened trees just a few hundred feet away.
"But what we see is that the after effects in this area, we did a burn, look really good," Petrie said. "The fire stayed at a low enough intensity not to kill these trees."
And with a newly marked trail system, San Vicente is offering even first time visitors the chance to experience a changing landscape, and perhaps a new reality in the Santa Cruz Mountains, of learning to live with fire.
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