Through the Flames

The journey to preserve State Parks’ historical records and artifacts

When the CZU Lightning Complex Fire roared through the Santa Cruz Mountains in August, Mark Hylkema, Supervisor of the Cultural Resources Program and Tribal Liaison/Archaeologist for the Santa Cruz District of California State Parks, and other key members of the State Parks team sprang to action with a very specific focus: saving artifacts from threatened State Parks.

Hylkema, who has been with State Parks for 20 years, was home in Sunnyvale and getting reports from colleagues: the fire was racing through 1,000 acres an hour; rangers had to watch the historic buildings at Big Basin Redwoods State Park burn but successfully evacuated 1,600 campers, residents and staff from the park.

“I already knew Big Basin was toasted and there was nothing we could do about it,” Hylkema recalled.

What follows recounts efforts by Hylkema and others to save State Parks artifacts and structures, and the aftermath of the fire. It is by no means comprehensive, but shares a small glimpse of the dedication in the face of danger shown during the CZU Lightning Complex Fire.

Through the flames

Hylkema pointed his pickup north up Highway 1, passing Wilder Ranch State Park in an attempt to reach parks closer to the fire zone before it was too late. Davenport was a solid black wall with an orange glow behind it. Hylkema, in uniform, continued through roadblocks.

At Rancho Del Oso, the coastal section of Big Basin, fire blazed on both sides of the road. Even the marsh was burning. Fire crews battled back flames to save the Nature and History Center, a ranch-style house that was once the home of Hulda Hoover McLean, niece of President Herbert Hoover, and now showcases the natural and cultural history of the area.

Hylkema pulled into Año Nuevo State Park, just north of the Santa Cruz-San Mateo county line, and hooked up with the park’s trail crew. Together, they went to the already-evacuated Butano State Park to try to secure animal specimens, historical records and other objects from the Visitor Center. Working quickly but with care, they took apart the exhibit cases and left the screws in neat piles in case the building survived the fire.

“We rescued all the taxidermy guys,” Hylkema said, referring to the robust collection of preserved wildlife at Butano.

They also dumped files and hard drives into plastic tubs, hoping to preserve historic records, old photographs and other items rangers had tucked away.

“We grabbed whatever,” Hylkema said. “It’s not just about the objects; it’s about the records.”

Two hours later, Hylkema and the trail crew evacuated Butano, “looking over our shoulders,” he recalled. Although areas of the park were damaged, the visitor center and other buildings ultimately were spared.

His next stop was Cascade Ranch, a historic State Parks property inland from Año Nuevo that is not open to the public. The dairy ranch, founded by the Steele family in the 1860s, was an early pioneer outpost on the San Mateo coast and had been part of the Año Nuevo property since the 1980s. The intent had always been to open it to the public and highlight the historic components.

In a pitched battle, firefighters did all they could — even draining the water treatment plant to fight back the flames — but eventually ran out of water.

The fire destroyed the majority of the property and its historic structures: the two-story horse barn, cookhouse and bunkhouse. Equipment, tents and the sweat lodge used by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, which was based at the property as it worked in partnership with State Parks, also were lost. Only the Humphrey House was saved.

“For me, from a cultural resource point of view, it’s really devastating,” Hylkema said. “That, to me, was more horrendous than Big Basin because Big Basin was designed, it was built … whereas Cascade Ranch represents a real historic time. I took the last pictures of things as the fire was rolling down Cascade Canyon.”

Hylkema departed Cascade Ranch to collect items at Año Nuevo, where rangers had already taken some items. A work crew arrived to “buck up the brush,” to better protect the historic buildings at Año Nuevo. All the structures there would survive the fire, which torched trees just across Highway 1 at Coastways Ranch.

The next day

The wildfire pressed closer to the San Lorenzo Valley and Santa Cruz, thousands of people and their homes were at risk — along with more State Parks. Hylkema went to the District Office at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton, where 500 boxes of archaeological material and other records were stored. He feared it could all burn.

“At that point, we had hot embers coming in around the corporation yard and Felton was evacuated,” he said.

State Parks staff in Sacramento sent two moving trucks. Hylkema loaded up one with the archives from Felton and sent the other to Wilder Ranch State Park, north of Santa Cruz on Highway 1 and potentially in the fire’s path. There, a team of curators from Sacramento wrapped up historic furniture and exhibits from the house museums at the ranch while a crew cut vegetation away from the historic Victorian homes, barns and the adobe building.

The fire never reached the historic core of Wilder Ranch or the main section of Henry Cowell — though the Fall Creek Unit burned extensively. Still, Hylkema said, “I’m glad we took the measures we did.”


Hylkema was able to enter Big Basin for the first time since the fire just after Labor Day. It was still hot and burning as he photographed damage to historic structures.

“It was pretty comprehensive,” he said of the damage.

To be eligible for federal aid money through FEMA, Big Basin needed to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a process a State Parks historian completed in 2008. The National Register listing includes contributing elements such as trails, residential housing and infrastructure.

“They are all part of Big Basin’s history and 99% of those burned,” Hylkema said.

“I’ve never had to deal with anything of this totality. We view this as a historic event.” — Mark Hylkema

The thick acrid smell of smoke hung in the air as Hylkema led a caravan of State Parks historians and archaeologists through locked gates to the Upper Sky Meadow area of Big Basin. The area, off Highway 236 before the historic core of the park, was largely developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. It burned hot, devastating employee housing, campgrounds and the historic Sky Meadow Girl Scout shelter.

On this day, the State Parks team recorded the losses at Sky Meadow with photos, maps, GPS data and written descriptions on iPads. In all, the State Parks team spent a week using Codifi, a software built specifically to document archaeology and cultural resources, capturing the fire’s destruction. The Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County helped to fund this work, and Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks loaned Jessica Kusz, Historic Preservation Project Manager, to the effort.

Just down the highway, crews felled fire-damaged trees and chipped the logs. Hylkema pointed at the massive redwoods, now blackened and missing tops.

“The fire may be out but the repercussions are still happening,” he said. ““I think a lot of things are still going to come down.”

What’s left of the original buildings at Big Basin also will come down. The fire burned so hot, even rocks and bricks in the fireplaces cracked. Archaeologists have combed through ashes for salvageable artifacts — a metal kettle, animal bones, joists that held up roof trusses. What remains will be bulldozed and hauled away.

The park that was the birth of the conservation movement and is California’s oldest State Park is now poised to be a model for interpreting modern history of wildfire in California.

“I’ve never had to deal with anything of this totality,” said Hylkema. “We view this as a historic event.”

Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks is assisting in the recovery effort at damaged parks, including Big Basin, Año Nuevo, Butano, the Fall Creek section of Henry Cowell and the Ranch Del Oso and Little Basins sections of Big Basin. The Friends Fire Fund has raised tens of thousands of dollars toward the recovery effort, including funds used to support the Codifi work at Big Basin and direct assistance to 24 State Parks staff and five Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks staff who suffered catastrophic losses in the fire.