Times climate editor Hannah Fairfield liked the idea. And in October, after many Zoom talks with scientists and some complicated arrangements to visit the burnt areas (some of which were still closed to the public), photographer Max Whittaker and I made the first of our reporting trips. Themes of shock and urgency emerged, even among cool-headed scientists. I would later emphasize the point of the article by writing:
In very different parts of the state, in independent ecosystems separated by hundreds of kilometers, scientists are drawing the same conclusion. If the last few years of wildfires were a statement on climate change, 2020 was the exclamation point.
What we found in the Blackened Forests was, in turn, heartbreaking, surreal, and hopeful.
Heartbreaking because so many massive trees that stood stoically in one place, some for thousands of years, were suffocated in an instant. As one scientist put it amid a charred landscape of giant sequoias, “They are literally irreplaceable – unless you have 2,000 years to wait.”
Surreal because that’s the only way to describe a desert that has taken the color of worn charcoal to the horizon (“It will never come back as it was,” the park botanist said). Or a lush green forest of stiff, straight redwoods transformed into a jumble of blacks and browns (“The forest I saw as a child won’t be back for a while,” said one environmentalist).
Hope because there are signs of life if you look closely enough.
But this is not a story of false optimism. The story we published – which I wrote, which Max photographed, and which a team of Times reporters wrapped in a hauntingly beautiful visual feast – was about dead trees, but also something a little more difficult to capture: our blurred sense of timelessness and continuity. .
Standing in these places presented questions that seemed overwhelming, but very much in line for 2020: What have we lost? And what do we have left to lose?