Back in May, Rewa Bush’s first day on the job at Big Basin Redwoods State Park started off with a flurry of paperwork and logistics. But when the 26-year-old walked through the old-growth forest to the trailer where she’d be living as a park interpreter — someone who educates visitors about the park’s natural and cultural history — she felt she could finally slow down.
Fog was floating through the massive redwoods, birds were singing all around her and the smell of moss filled her nose. Bush had to lie on her back to see the tops of the trees, some of which were 1,500 years old. She felt like the whole place was alive.
“And I just exhaled deeper than I had in a long time,” she says.
Months later, Bush’s trailer is gone, and the park as she knew it has been devastated. Along with the rest of Boulder Creek, Bush evacuated on Aug. 18, after a lightning storm and intense heat set blazes that would become the CZU August Lightning Complex Fires. It’s just one of many — including the second- and third-largest recorded in the state — that have left residents across California reeling.
As of Sunday, the CZU Lightning fires had scorched more than 74,000 acres, destroyed more than 130 homes and killed one person, according to Cal Fire officials. California State Parks said Big Basin sustained “extensive damage” in the fires, including the destruction of its historic headquarters, nature center and campgrounds. The extent of the damage to the park’s famous trees is still unknown.
Officials in the surrounding areas are still on high alert — only 8 percent of the fire is contained, with more dry lightning storms possible on Monday. Although redwood trees are notoriously resilient to fire, for women who know the park intimately, the events still feel like a shock.
“All of these places that are my touchstones that I had full intention of returning to day after day — I can’t imagine they’re not there anymore in the same capacity,” says Bush. “I couldn’t have fathomed how large this would grow.”
People across the country know Big Basin for its old-growth redwoods, historic campgrounds and proximity to the San Francisco Bay area. California boasts the largest park system in the country, and Big Basin has a rich history; although many attribute its establishment in 1902 as the beginning of the conservation movement in California, Native Americans stewarded the land for thousands of years before. And in 1929, Harriet “Petey” Weaver made history there by becoming the state’s first woman park ranger.
The park’s history is what Susan Blake, who has worked at Big Basin for 14 years, loves so much about it. In her role as an interpreter, she’s able to tell the park’s story to visitors, sharing her own passion for the outdoors with others.
Blake was out shopping with her husband last Tuesday when they received the park evacuation notice. They rushed back as fires blazed throughout the park; they had just about five minutes to save their two cats and whatever else they could grab from their residence. Ash fell all around them.
The next morning, they found out that their home had been destroyed along with the park’s other structures.
Although Blake is “sad” about what’s been lost, she knows the forest well. And that’s what gives her reason to hope. “These ancient trees have seen a lot,” she says. “They have survived in those 1,500 years: fires, floods, snowstorms, droughts. So they will recover.”
Elizabeth Hammack, manager for interpretation and education for the region’s state parks, oversees the four interpreters — Bush and Blake included — who have lost their residences. “It’s devastating,” she says.
Hammack herself started her career in the California parks system in 1986 as a seasonal interpreter at Big Basin. Back then, she says, she was one of the only women working in that capacity. Decades later, Hammack had recently been leading a project to renovate the park’s museum, a structure that was burned in the fires. “A lot of women rangers and interpreter naturalists have had a huge impact on shaping the Big Basin and how we tell the Big Basin story,” she says.
Today, three of the four interpreters she oversees at Big Basin are women, although all the park rangers, who provide law enforcement, are currently men, according to Hammack. Historically, conservation has been dominated by White men: As studies have shown, women tend to support conservation efforts more than men — but they often lack the leadership roles to do so effectively. In 2019, women comprised 37.5 percent of the permanent workforce at the National Park Service. Meanwhile, Black women comprised only 2.9 percent of the permanent workforce and Latinas comprised only 2.2 percent.
Bush says she’d always been interested in the natural sciences, but she often encountered sexism when she expressed her desire to learn more. It all changed when she was 17 and participated in a two-week backpacking trip with all women; it was the first backcountry trip she’d taken. “It felt like I had a place in the world,” she says. “I wanted to make those kinds of experiences possible, especially for kids who aren’t traditionally getting access to outdoor spaces.”
Ashley Bouchahine, 29, made a career pivot to work in conservation this past June. That’s when she started working with American Conservation Experience, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing environmental service opportunities. Although her team was tasked with traveling to various parks in the state, her base camp was at Big Basin.
“I lived in the area for the last six years, and Big Basin was my favorite park,” she says. “So when we got the project to work in Big Basin, I was just so excited. I was just so happy to be working on the trails.”
Bouchahine’s team was working in the Ventana Wilderness, about 100 miles from Big Basin, when the fires started worsening. After being called out of the backcountry and being sent to a hotel for the night, they learned their base camp at Big Basin had succumbed to the fires. Bouchahine says she lost most of her valuables — her computer, two cameras. While devastating, the experience has only reinforced what she’d set out to do in June.
“If anything, this has made me way more adamant about how important conservation is,” she says. “We’re just going to see more and more of these types of disasters happening if we don’t take effective action and science-based research action to address the issues that we’re facing. This is our lives, and this is what matters.”
For now, Hammack says she’s still in “disbelief” that the structures and some of the redwoods of the park are gone. But as words of love and grief and support roll in from people who have visited Big Basin over the years, she can’t help but feel that nothing is lost forever.
“We will keep the story of Big Basin alive,” she says. “It may take years to rebuild, but the trees are resilient, and so are we.”