In vastly different parts of the state, in unrelated ecosystems separated by hundreds of miles, scientists are drawing the same conclusion: If the past few years of wildfires were a statement about climate change, 2020 was the exclamation point.
This past summer in the Sierra Nevada, a fire ecologist named Kristen Shive camped in one of the few remaining ancient groves of giant sequoias, among trees as old as the Bible. This fall she revisited the grove, and stood somberly among the dead.
“They’ve lived through literally hundreds of fires in their lifetimes,” Dr. Shive said. “Now we’re seeing them killed in one fell swoop.”
To the south, Drew Kaiser, a botanist, hiked through what had been one of the largest remaining stands of the Joshua tree, the otherworldly yucca, in the Mojave National Preserve.
Historically, the desert is not a place prone to rampaging wildfire. But Mr. Kaiser beheld a colorless moonscape dotted with the skeletal remains of collapsing Joshua trees. He estimated that 1.3 million had been destroyed in a single blaze in August.
“I love Joshua trees,” Mr. Kaiser said. “I can’t stand to see them go.”
Far to the north, near the Pacific Ocean, an environmental scientist named Joanne Kerbavaz inspected old-growth redwoods, the tallest trees on earth. She has been coming to Big Basin Redwoods State Park to roam the forests since she was a little girl.
“The smell of redwood in the summertime was the aroma of my youth,” she said.
In August, fire swept through 97 percent of the park, home of 4,400 acres of old-growth redwood trees. When Ms. Kerbavaz returned in November to clamber through the destruction, all sense of timelessness and continuity had been rearranged.
“The forest I saw as a kid will not be back for some time,” she said.
Giant sequoia, Lee Rentz/Alamy
Joshua tree, Joel Quizon/EyeEm, via Getty Images
Coast redwood, Kristen Piljay/Alamy
The enchantment that California’s forests provoke can be scientific or spiritual. For the state’s three famous plant species, it is probably both. The allure stems from each one’s unique blend of size, shape and age. Their heft, their height, their persistence. Their sheer audacity.
They are never found together. Yet they share an uncommon ability to silently stand there and elicit a reaction — gasps, giggles, photographs, memories. How many other trees can attract a crowd?
Resiliency is key to their magnetism. They survive where others would not. They stand their ground, with panache. Sequoias and redwoods can live thousands of years on their way to dwarfing most everything around them. Joshua trees are the most good-natured of desert plants, frozen in dance poses as they endure the harshest of environments with flair.
They have a timeless quality that can make their onlookers feel small and impermanent by comparison, the way a night sky does to stargazers. We know they will outlast us.