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California fires: Desperate race to save parks history as forests burned all around

For the past 40 years, Mark Hylkema has been an archaeologist. He has studied events and cultures from thousands of years ago.

But last Wednesday, as lightning-sparked fires exploded through the Santa Cruz Mountains, devouring thousands of acres in the area’s largest wildfire in more than a century, Hylkema realized that history was unfolding. And history was at risk.

The cultural resources supervisor at the California state parks department’s Santa Cruz district, Hylkema rushed from his home in Sunnyvale to Felton that morning. He jumped into a state parks pickup truck and began a desperate scramble to help save thousands of photographs, historical records, native arrowheads, baskets, animal specimens and other objects from state parks buildings and visitor centers where the fire was bearing down.



Already heartbroken after hearing fire had destroyed the 1930s-era headquarters, nature center, lodge and other buildings at Big Basin Redwoods State Park a day before, he drove north on Highway 1 toward Butano State Park, whose redwood forests were also burning.

“It was a black wall,” he said. “It was like night all around, with an orange glow.”

He saw flames raging along the roadside, burning marshes at Scott Creek, trees on both sides of the road near Waddell Beach, and the landscape east of the highway at Año Nuevo State Park in flames.

When he made it up Gazos Creek Road to Butano, fire trucks blocked the street. Smoke was billowing out of the park’s back country. He and three members of a state parks trail crew hurried into the park headquarters. They filled a dozen boxes with computer hard drives, historic photographs and native artifacts. They unscrewed display cases and moved old logging tools, arrowheads, mortars, and birds nests, along with a stuffed bobcat, a heron, hawks, bats and other exhibits enjoyed by generations of families. They drove it all back through the flames to Mission Santa Cruz State Historic Park and other places for safekeeping.

“I’ve got five taxidermied owls on my front porch right now,” Hylkema said, still taking it all in.

Afterward, he called state parks headquarters in Sacramento and asked for help. They sent two large commercial moving trucks, with crews of professional movers, to save history before the flames consumed it.

On Thursday, with 57,000 residents already evacuated from the area and more than 100 houses burned, Hylkema, the movers, park rangers and other state parks officials evacuated their district headquarters at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton, a beloved park visited in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt. They moved more than 350 boxes of photos, archaeological artifacts and other irreplaceable objects that tell the history of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Hylkema went to Wilder Ranch, a historic dairy farm north of Santa Cruz on Highway 1, and working with state parks staff, fire crews and the hired movers, helped clear out two 19th century homes at the park’s center as its upper reaches burned. They unbolted blacksmith equipment dating back to the 1870s, and moved a Model T Ford to safer ground.

He returned to Cascade Ranch, on the east side of Highway 1 in southern San Mateo County near Año Nuevo and found historic buildings — a barn, a bunk house, a cook house — dating back to the Civil War, in smoldering ruins. He thought of Big Basin and the losses there, and said he hopes the buildings can be rebuilt in their original classic style.

“It was very emotional,” Hylkema said. “What was going on in my mind was a sense of personal grief. I’ve been working out there for 40 years. Nature will recover. But we lost the memories of our times, the experiences we had. That is gone. The redwoods will come back, but none of those historic structures will come back. Their time is gone.”

On Friday he returned to Año Nuevo. Working with parks crews, they cut back trees from historic buildings and created fire breaks. They removed exhibits from the visitor center.

Hylkema, 63, knows wildfires firsthand. His son, Erik, is a firefighter in Felton who has been battling the CZU Complex fires without sleep for days on end.

“I’ve been in fires before but it was the first time I have seen anything like this,” he said. “I’m almost in tears thinking about what’s gone. But when you look at the camaraderie of people — I was working with people who had just found out their houses had burned. And they were still out there cutting brush.”

As of Wednesday morning, the tide was beginning to turn. Apart from the historic buildings at Big Basin and Cascade Ranch, and Gazos Mountain Camp and a radio repeater at Butano, buildings at the other parks were still standing.

One particularly tough loss was the nature center at Big Basin. Built in 1938 by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, the building was in the middle of a major renovation. All of its objects — collections of butterflies pinned neatly in glass cases, dozens of taxidermied birds, shells, snakes, wasps nests and other collections painstakingly assembled in the 1940s by Leonard Penhale, California’s first state park naturalist, burned.

“It’s hard to talk about,” said Amanda Krauss, who works for the nonprofit Sempervirens Fund and serves on the museum renovation committee. “You can’t go back into the past and reclaim items from history. That’s a shame. But I’m the kind of person who looks forward. I have hope in the redwood trees being very resilient, and I hope we can rebuild the buildings and create new memories and history. The fire will be part of the history now.”

Workers move antique furniture from 19th century homes at Wilder Ranch State Park into moving trucks as fire burns the upper part of the park on Thursday Aug. 20, 2020. (Photo: Mark Hylkema)

Source: Orange County Register

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