TNYT, Dec. 16, 2020
They are the only plant species in California honored and protected by national parks that bear their names. They attract crowds from around the world.
But 2020 was not a good year for the coast redwood, the Joshua tree or the giant sequoia. Already under long-term threat from a changing climate, the huge wildfires this year took dramatic aim at the state’s three most famous species.
In Big Basin Redwoods State Park, 97 percent of the 4,400 acres of old-growth forest burned. In Mojave National Preserve, a single fire wiped out an estimated 1.3 million Joshua trees (which are really yucca, a perennial shrub). In the Sierra Nevada, the 2020 fires burned one-third of the remaining habitat of giant sequoias, killing hundreds, maybe thousands, of ancient trees in a relative instant.
“They are literally irreplaceable,” said Kristen Shive, a forest ecologist, “unless you have 2,000 years to wait.”
The ranges of these species do not overlap; they live in vastly different ecosystems, sometimes separated by hundreds of miles. That is what made 2020 so stunning. Like never before, at least in modern times, has fire done so much destruction to each of these species, and it did it all in one year.
This fall, I accompanied experts into the burn areas — some of them still smoldering and off-limits to the public — with the photographer Max Whittaker. What we found was, at turns, heartbreaking, surreal and hopeful.