National Park Service News

A Prescription for Fire

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by Jason Epperson, with narration from Abigail Trabue and video’s from the National Park Service. Links are provided below for all videos used in this episode.

Listen below, or on any podcast app:

From a seed no bigger than one from a tomato, California’s coast Redwood may grow to a height of 367 feet and have a width of 22 feet at its base. Imagine a 35-story skyscraper in your city, and you have an inkling of the trees’ ability to arouse humility.

Some visitors envision dinosaurs rumbling through these forests in bygone eras. I’m Jason Epperson, and this is California’s Redwood National Park.

It turns out that picturing dinosaurs roaming through the forest is a perfectly natural thought. Fossil records have shown that relatives of today’s coast redwoods thrived in the Jurassic Era 160 million years ago. And while the fantastic creatures of that age have long since disappeared, the redwoods continue to thrive in the right environment.

California’s North Coast provides the only such environment in the world. A combination of longitude, climate, and elevation limits the Redwoods’ range to a few hundred coastal miles. The cool, moist air created by the Pacific Ocean keeps the trees continually damp, even during summer droughts. These conditions have existed for some time, as the redwoods go back 20 million years in their present range.

Exactly why the redwoods grow so tall is a mystery. Theories continue to develop but proof remains elusive. The trees can reach ages of 2,000 years and regularly reach 600 years.

Resistance to natural enemies such as insects and fire are built-in features of a coast redwood. Diseases are virtually unknown, and insect damage insignificant thanks to the high tannin content of the wood. Thick bark and foliage that rests high above the ground provides protection from all but the hottest fires.

The Redwoods’ unusual ability to regenerate also aids in their survival as a species. They do not rely solely upon sexual reproduction, as many other trees must. New sprouts may come directly from a stump or downed tree’s root system as a clone. Basal burls — hard, knotty growths that form from dormant seedlings on a living tree — can sprout a new tree when the main trunk is damaged by fire, cutting, or toppling.

The coast Redwood’s environment recycles naturally; because the 100-plus inches of annual rainfall leaves the soil with few nutrients, the trees rely on each other, living and dead for their vital nutrients. The trees need to decay naturally to fully participate in this cycle. 

But while these trees enjoy robust and hearty features, they have been threatened by humans. 

When Euro-Americans swept westward in the 1800s, they needed raw material for their homes and lives. Commercial logging followed the expansion of America as companies struggled to keep up with the furious pace of progress. Timber harvesting quickly became the top manufacturing industry in the west.

When gold was discovered in northwestern California in 1850, the rush was on. Thousands crowded the remote redwood region in search of riches and new lives. These people were no less dependent upon lumber, and the redwoods conveniently provided the wood the people needed. The size of the huge trees made them prized timber, as redwood became known for its durability and workability. By 1853, nine sawmills were at work in Eureka, a gold boom town established three years prior. Large-scale logging was soon underway, and the once immense stands of redwoods began to disappear by the close of the 19th century.

At first, axes, saws, and other early methods of bringing the trees down were used. But the loggers made use of rapidly improving technology in the 20th century that allowed more trees to be harvested in less time. Transportation also caught up to the task of moving the massive logs. The locomotive replaced horses and oxen. Railroads became the fastest way to transport the logs to mills.

Land fraud was common, as acres of prime redwood forests were transferred from the public domain to private industry. Although some of the perpetrators were caught, many thousands of acres of land were lost in land swindles.

By the 1910s, some concerned citizens began to clamor for the preservation of the dwindling stands of redwoods. The Save-the-Redwoods League was born out of this earnest group, and eventually, the League succeeded in helping to establish the redwood preserves of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

But still logging continued in those parts of the forests that were privately owned, accelerated by WW II and the economic boom of the 1950s. By the 1960s, logging had consumed nearly 90 percent of all the original redwoods. It wasn’t until 1968 that Redwood National Park was established, which secured some of the few remaining stands of uncut redwoods. In 1978, Congress added more land that included logged-over portions of Redwood Creek. Today, these lands are undergoing large-scale restoration by the parks’ resource managers. Logging continues on privately-held lands nearby and throughout the redwood region.

That’s Eamon Engber, Fire Ecologist at Redwood National Park. He stands in front of a park emergency vehicle with a map taped to it, planning the day’s job as he addresses the crew that will carry it out.

Fire is the life-blood of conifer forests and paries. But as modern development encroaches on these lands, fires have become more dangerous, and too big to rebirth plands without killing others. Forest fires have always been caused by lighting, meaning that they happen during or after rainstorms, and otherwise moist times of the year, keeping their impact minimal, usually towards the forest floor and away from the canopy. When humans cause fires during dry periods, they spread rapidly, consuming everything in their path. 

Using a “drip-torch”, fire crews begin to burn the edges of the planned boundary. This occurs after a small test burn has been competed, and only when the temperature, humidity, wind direction and fuel moisture are within strict parameters.

The burn is accomplishing its task. The next time a massive forest fire comes through, there will be less fuel available to it, but more importantly, invasive species are removed, and small trees that choke the forest are eliminated. This forest will continue to thrive because of prescribed burns. 

Redwood National Park is actually managed as Redwood National and State Parks, a string of protected forests, beaches and grasslands along Northern California’s coast. Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park has trails through dense old-growth woods. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is home to Fern Canyon, with its high, plant-covered walls. Roosevelt elk frequent nearby Elk Prairie. Giant redwood clusters include Redwood National Park’s Lady Bird Johnson Grove.

 For thousands of years people have lived in this verdant landscape. Together, the National Park Service and California State Parks are managing and restoring these lands for the inspiration, enjoyment, and education of all.

Here, banana slugs, gray whales, Douglas-fir, black bears, and sea anemones are equally at home with redwoods.

Congress protected lands adjacent to the three California state parks in 1968 with the creation of Redwood National Park. In 1994, the California Department of Parks and Recreation and the National Park Service agreed to manage the four-park area jointly for maximum resource protection.

Today, visitors will find not only old-growth redwood groves but open prairie lands, two major rivers, and 37 miles of pristine California coastline. 

Cabins and developed camping are available through the California State Parks system, and plenty of commercial lodging surrounds the area. 

It’s a large area, with several individual groves to explore, so you’ll want to plan well. Scenic drives, hiking, and biking trails abound. 



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Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Redwood Area History: https://www.nps.gov/redw/learn/historyculture/area-history.htm

About the trees:  https://www.nps.gov/redw/learn/nature/about-the-trees.htm

The Three Redwoods:  https://www.nps.gov/redw/planyourvisit/upload/ThreeTrees-2014-508.pdf

Prescribed Fire Videos used in the episode: 

https://www.nps.gov/redw/learn/photosmultimedia/firevideos.htm


For more great American destinations, give us a listen at our new See America podcast, wherever you listen to this one.
If you are interested in RV travel, find us at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and me as we travel the country with our three boys at Our Wandering FamilyParagraph

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.

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