A friend and I went camping in Mendocino County a couple of weeks ago as the Mendocino Complex fire became the largest fire in California history. As we approached Cloverdale, in the heart of Sonoma wine country, we were met with smoky air and legions of fatigued firefighters, some sleeping in their trucks. They’re fighting the L.A. sized inferno in brutal 24-hour shifts. It all feels desperate, particularly for those suffering evacuations or worse. Not to mention, fires are starting much earlier this season, and a mere nine months after the last record-breaking fires.
Not one to shy away from offering suggestions, President Trump weighed in, suggesting we cut down more trees presumably to aid fire-stricken California in the future. Experts agree this is the wrong approach.
Forestry experts largely blame global warming as one main cause. Another is deforestation and younger forests’ inability to resist fire like old-growth forests. As a case in point, younger trees have low-hanging branches that easily catch on fire as well as less fire-resistant bark.
Before the mid-19th century, California was covered with fire-resistant old forests. In the west, the tallest-in-the-world Redwoods covered Mendocino. To the East, the Sierra mountains were thick with the largest-in-the-world Sequoias, with their insulated and fire-resistant bark.
These ‘old growth’ trees rely on forest fires to clear competition and even aid with seed propagation, while younger trees become fuel for the fire.
We left the wine country in search of old trees, driving West to coastal Mendocino. While cutting through via Anderson valley, fumes gave way to fog and what was a mere century ago old Redwood forest, stretching on for hundreds of miles. We came to explore what was left via canoe up the Big River Estuary.
Today, the river’s edge is lined with younger so-called ‘2nd growth trees’. We did find a big old one. It towered above the forest, complete with no low branches. This tree has survived dozens of fires, perhaps some bigger than the record-breaking Mendocino Complex fire (from before record-keeping of course). Somehow it also survived what was once the largest sawmill in the region, that is until a fire burned it down in the early 1900s. We can only speculate that if the Redwood forest was left intact, the fire would have not spread.
On the way back through Anderson Valley, eager to see more Redwoods, we popped into Hendy Woods State Park. The roughly one square mile forest is living proof that Redwood forests are able to resist fires for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Standing hundreds of feet tall, these trees are nature’s great feat of material engineering with the stiffness-to-weight of steel. If that was not enough, these forests also sequester CO2. With such remarkable qualities, they should be studied, emulated, and left in the ground as living inspiration. These trees are the epitome of resilience having evolved since the dinosaur era. They’ve survived worse than these forest fires, can’t say as much about the dinosaurs.