One year after lightning strikes ignited what became the largest recorded fire in San Mateo County history, California Gov. Gavin Newsom visited Big Basin State Park — California's oldest state park and home to old-growth redwoods over 1,000 years old — on Tuesday to reflect on the state's response to wildfires, drought and other threats from climate change.
The CZU August Lightning Complex fires, which began Aug. 16, 2020, burned about 86,500 acres in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties and destroyed about 1,500 structures. The wildfire tore through the Santa Cruz Mountains, destroying rural homes and buildings in its path, as well as causing major damage to several beloved parks and open space preserves, including San Mateo County's Pescadero Creek County Park, Butano State Park, San Vicente Redwoods and especially Big Basin State Park.
The park's headquarters, which previously boasted a museum, information center and a gift shop that sold frozen yogurt and refreshments to parched visitors, and was surrounded by the cool shade of giant redwood and towering Douglas fir trees, was unrecognizable Tuesday. All that remained of the structures was the chimney from a lodge building. The trees' bark had blackened and their needles turned brown. Some trees showed new sprouts of growth coming out of the charred bark.
In front of the 200-foot-tall, roughly 1,500-year-old giant redwood known as the Auto Tree, Newsom described how the news of the CZU wildfires last year had impacted him. Accompanying him was Michael Regan, administrator with the Environmental Protection Agency.
"Of all the fires ... this one was perhaps the biggest gut punch last year because of what it means to people — their memory, traditions, history — and the fragility that is the world we're living in at the moment," Newsom said.
California is facing unprecedented threats from "Mother Nature," he said. While he stood in the place where the Big Basin park headquarters once stood, the largest single-source wildfire in the state's history, the Dixie Fire, had grown to more than 600,000 acres, despite the firefighting efforts of about 10,000 people and many more tools and resources, he said.
"The most powerful force in the world is Mother Nature, and right now we are struggling, as are many of our colleagues around the Western United States (and) all around the rest of the globe, to reconcile her fury," he said.
"We have the largest civilian firefighting force in the world in the state of California, yet still it's not enough to address the challenges we're facing," he added.
One challenge is that the vast majority of the forest fires happening are taking place in federal jurisdictions, he said. About 57% of the state's forest lands are federally owned, while 3% are under state control; the rest are privately owned. He credited President Joe Biden for convening proactive forums with governors across the Western U.S. to discuss the problem of wildfires.
There are also many firefighting success stories that are never told, he added.
"The reality is every day we're dealing with initial attacks and we're keeping these things under 10 acres — I mean hundreds and hundreds, thousands and thousands of fires that don't have names, that you attach no identity to, are being suppressed every single day," he said.
The CZU August Lightning Complex started with 27 small fires ignited by lightning, and 22 of those were suppressed. The five remaining fires were what eventually expanded and combined into the complex fire that left so much damage behind a year later.
The federal government is invested in working to provide tools and resources to enable faster responses to droughts and fires, Regan said. "There's absolutely no question that the president's vision is to have a whole-government approach. We cannot solve these problems sitting behind a desk in Washington, D.C.," he added.
Mandatory drought measures possible
With reservoirs across the state at historically low levels — the California Department of Water Resources reports that as of Aug. 17, the San Luis Reservoir was at 16% of its capacity and Lake Oroville at 23% of its capacity — the state has only enacted voluntary water reduction measures so far.
That could change by the the end of next month, Newsom said. Already, 50 of the state's 58 counties have been declared to be facing drought emergencies and the entire state may be headed that direction, he said. While water reduction requests are not mandatory at the moment, he said, "We will have likely more to say by the end of September as we enter potentially the third year of this drought."
One effort to strengthen communities' resilience to the impacts of both wildfires and drought is investing in safe drinking water. In the aftermath of the CZU August Lightning Complex fires, some people in households impacted by the fire also faced the threat of contaminated drinking water as water infrastructure, especially infrastructure made out of plastic, was subjected to high temperatures, leading to the threat of chemicals entering the water supply. Newsom said that with the many water systems across California — more than 7,700 small water systems statewide — sometimes people who can least afford it are left bearing the infrastructure costs.