The CZU Lightning Complex fires, which have burned 86,509 acres are 89% contained as of Monday morning, Sept. 14, will alter the landscape of some of the Peninsula and South Bay's most iconic forests for the foreseeable future. In San Mateo County, it's estimated that around 2,700 acres of Pescadero Creek County Park burned. Memorial Park and Sam McDonald Park were not directly impacted by the fires.
We asked two San Mateo County Parks Department staff members, whose careers are dedicated to enabling conservation and recreation in local forests, how they've responded: David Vasquez, a park ranger who supervises the parks most affected by the fires, and Dan Krug, a county arborist who works with the parks department.
For Supervising Ranger David Vasquez, the fires created opportunities for parks staff to put their skills to use and learn from other agencies responding to the fire.
As the managing county park ranger for a district that covers Pescadero Creek County Park, Memorial Park and Sam McDonald Park, he had been working to support a major renovation project in the works at Memorial Park, which was closed for camping this season due to renovations apart from the fires. The department plans to reopen it in spring 2021.
But when the fires struck, the parks department quickly joined up with other agencies and offered its own expertise and tools to aid the fire suppression efforts.
Park rangers are not trained in firefighting, Vasquez said. But they are uniquely equipped to do a lot of the work involved in protecting land from fires: operating chainsaws, knowing how to manage forests and wildlands, protecting roads and cutting trails.
"This is normally what we do. ... it goes hand-in-hand with protecting your area from a fire," he said.
Of particular help to the effort were the large pieces of equipment that parks maintenance staff use regularly — tractors, bulldozers and a masticator, which grinds up fire fuels, Vasquez said.
They helped to strengthen the lines cleared to halt the fires and establish fire breaks.
Their priority was to protect county park facilities, especially infrastructure like the potable water supply used at the campgrounds at Memorial Park.
They worked late daily cutting back fire fuels and establishing fire breaks, Vasquez said.
"We had a good purpose. We had a sense of 'We know what we're good at, and what we're good at will be useful and helpful in this situation,'" he said.
Fighting the fires as part of a much larger operation also helped them get to know other people who work in adjacent agencies — like the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, whose crew members were also out fighting fires, he said.
Their work was "a small effort in the whole picture of things," he said. "We did everything we could and I think it made a difference."
The fires burned a large swath of Pescadero Creek County Park — up to Old Haul Road, a popular hiking and equestrian path that cuts through the park.
But given the devastation faced by families who lost their homes and at other parks such as Big Basin, Krug said that San Mateo County parks were fortunate nonetheless. They were spared from more destruction, and the fire's path through county land may help reduce the threat of future fires.
San Mateo County represented the northern end of the CZU fires, and the wind generally cooperated to move the fires away from core park areas, he said.
Krug has a joint role in San Mateo County, where he spends about 40% of his time as a county arborist reviewing tree protection and removal plans in the planning and building departments, and about 60% of his time on the county parks department's natural resources team, tackling tree-related issues.
He advises parks staff on how to mitigate hazards posed by the forests they maintain, when to remove them and how to reduce wildfire fuels within county parks.
When the CZU fires broke out, Krug kept a close eye on them. As they progressed, he went out to the fire line to document how the flames were moving through the forests, taking photos and helping out fire agencies with fuel reduction projects.
Reducing fuel, he said, meant primarily clearing brush from infrastructure such as roads and in important areas in the parks.
Laypeople sometimes say that San Mateo County doesn't burn because of the marine layer and the forest's proximity to the ocean, he said.
"But this is a prime example that it does — that it can," he said. "Under the correct conditions, anything could happen. That's pretty much what we saw."
Because the area hasn't seen fire activity in recent memory, there's a lot the county parks department still needs to learn about how fires impact this ecosystem, he said.
In some areas where the fire was known to burn at very high heats, there may still be stumps or logs burning in the ground, Krug said in a Sept. 1 interview.
Historically, the area was logged about 50 years ago and then everything was allowed to regrow. That resulted in a forest that was overly dense, he said.
Park visitors see that dense forest and think that's how it should be, he said.
"But the land was altered to create that status," he said. "There are ways to improve the ecology and the habitat value in that by being more proactive."
The county parks system has a fire fuel mitigation process and had plans in the works before the fires struck to manage parts of the area that burned. That said, he added, it didn't seem likely that those efforts would have made any difference with the CZU fires.
When asked whether these fires could have been predicted, he responded, "I wouldn't say that."
One point for cautious optimism is that redwood trees — even the younger, second-generation ones that have grown in densely after the area was initially logged — are genetically designed to handle heat from fires and thrive, he said.
Still, Cal Fire has reported that some trees are simply falling over due to fire damage.
"Unmanaged areas of the forest come with all sorts of hazards, naturally," Krug said. "Throw in something like this, and it becomes potentially more hazardous."
"We fully expect trees to fall onto trails and within off-trail areas for some time — through the winter or for the foreseeable future," he added. "Knowing what will happen long-term is an unknown for us."
From a forestry perspective, he added, a silver lining is that the way that the fire burned on county property helped to reduce the fire fuel loads on the ground, and could help the department better manage the forest moving forward, he said.
"It's a unique opportunity to have a naturally caused fire like this, and we need to consider taking the opportunity to revitalize management of the land."
After the fire is suppressed comes work to repair what's damaged and work toward restoration, he said.
"It's a long road ahead of us to be able to make the area safe. ... There's going to be a broad closure likely for some time until we're really able to assess what is hazardous, and we would implore the public to heed the closures."