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MacNab Cypress Trees Offer New Clues To Fire Resistance

Catherine Koehler / Courtesy

A photo of the McLaughlin Natural Reserve. Unburned patches of MacNab cypress are dark green.

Catherine Koehler / Courtesy

Summer wildfires have scorched thousands of acres in California and reduced forests to ash. But for researchers who study forests, wildfires can provide intriguing opportunities for discovery. 

The MacNab cypress doesn’t look particularly special, at first glance. In fact, to some, it looks downright outlandish.

"The MacNab cypress, I kind of jokingly call a Dr. Seuss tree. They’re these shrubs that kind of go sideways," says Catherine Koehler, co-director of the McLaughlin Natural Reserve in Lake County.

In August, the Rocky and Jerusalem Fires burned an estimated 4,000 acres in the reserve. After the wildfires, Koehler noticed something surprising. Some patches of trees had survived. And many of these trees were cypresses.

"So you look across a hillside or a valley with your binocs and you’re like,' Wow, that was that cypress patch and it was totally missed,'" she says.

Hugh Safford, ecologist with the US Forest Service, says a tree’s flammability depends a lot on its physiology. In the case of the MacNab cypress, its odd appearance may help it resist wildfires.

"They don’t even really have needles," says Safford. "They have sort of these little scales. And when they fall on the ground, they pack very closely together and they don’t offer a whole lot of surface area for oxygen to get in there, so it’s very difficult to ignite them and to burn them."

Researchers can't yet say whether their discoveries about the heartiness of the MacNab cypress have implications for forest management.


Shahla Farzan

Intern with The View From Here

Shahla is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Davis, where she studies the ecology of native bees. She first caught the radio bug as a world music show host for WMHC, the oldest college radio station in the country operated by women.  Read Full Bio 

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