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Almost a year after the CZU Lightning Complex fires ripped through California’s oldest state park, portions have finally started to reopen as extensive restoration continues — and as the 2021 wildfire season begins.

The new nature center at Rancho del Oso in Davenport, the seaward side of Big Basin Redwoods State Park, opened up to visitors at the end of May, along with the Marsh Trail that crosses Waddell Creek. Bathrooms, parking lots and picnic areas are also open to the public.

This marks a small but important step in what has been and will continue to be a long and intensive road to restoration. The rest of the park, located 17 miles north of Santa Cruz, remains closed for the time being.

A big focus for the next year will be developing new exhibits for the nature and history center, partially funded by a grant from the nonprofit Save the Redwoods League, said Elizabeth Hammack, manager of interpretation and communications for the Santa Cruz District of the California State Parks system.

Hammack has been significantly involved with the Big Basin restoration efforts after the CZU Lightning Fire destroyed more than 90 percent of the park, including historic buildings, in August 2020. The fire will be a significant part of the park’s go-forward plans in terms of exhibits and programming, including short films, a photo archive and an oral history project, Hammack said.

“We’ve equipped staff and docents with information about the fire (and the restoration efforts),” said Hammack, who has worked as a seasonal interpreter since 1987.

Encouraging signs

A big part of the work she has done over the years has been the park’s interpretative panels, which are still standing, having survived the blaze. She’s also been touched by the resilience of nature.

“We are seeing wildflowers pop up everywhere — there’s so much regrowth, it’s really encouraging,” she said.

Technically, the CZU Lightning Complex fire isn’t fully extinguished; acres of roots are still smoldering below the surface. That has led to a handful of flare-ups in recent months, including one that burned roughly 7 acres in May. And, along with the threat of new fires, that’s shaping the way the park will be restored.

“We are seeing wildflowers pop up everywhere — there’s so much regrowth, it’s really encouraging.”

Elizabeth Hammack, California State Parks

“A lot of people have asked about whether we’ll build the same way it was, but (it’s hard to say) as we’re still cleaning up,” said Hammack. “Climate change will be at the forefront of the reimagining.”

Her colleague, Mark Hylkema, a long-time archaeologist and tribal liaison for the Santa Cruz District of California State Parks, echoes that statement.

“This is an ongoing process,” said Hylkema, who has spent the past several months inventorying and documenting all of the park’s resources and features.

Preserving history

It is also a painstaking process that has included identifying properties eligible for the state or national historic registries, auditing and documenting records, even conducting drone surveillance to capture everything. It includes working closely with PG&E, Cal Fire, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other organizations involved with the clean-up to ensure everything is done in accordance with historical preservation guidelines.

“We’ve re-recorded everything (of what was) and now the future question is, ‘what will it be?” Hylkema said of the restoration process. “Everyone has their own ideas of what it should be and what it will look like next.”

Preserving tribal ancestral sites is also core to this process, he said, and in fact, state parks employees have found some of these sites were larger than they originally realized. And this means even more care must be taken when it comes to debris clean-up and preserving these newly exposed tribal sites. A silver lining is that this also is leading to new ways of working with the park’s Native American partners to tell the stories that weren’t told back when the Big Basin Redwoods State Park visitors’ center was established in 1936, Hylkema said.

“We want those tribal voices heard,” he said, adding that there is a new opportunity to rethink the way the park’s stories and history are told. “Their heritage is being considered.”

There’s an also an opportunity, he said, to evaluate the use of more ecologically sound building materials as the parks system determines how it will replace buildings destroyed by the fire, including the park’s headquarters. There are a lot of conversations to be had and many stakeholders involved in what almost everyone agrees is going to be a long and ongoing process. At this point, there’s no defined timeline for when the other parts of Big Basin Redwoods State Park will be able to reopen.

“We’re here for the long haul and so is the forest,” Hylkema said.