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The Candelabra Tree in Butano State Park.

Steve Henry

For much of its long life, the giant Candelabra Tree was a hidden gem.

The unusual redwood, with its five vertical branches towering above a squat base to resemble a candelabra, is tucked into a remote part of Butano State Park.

Butano itself is among the lesser-visited state parks on the California coast south of San Francisco.

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But over the summer, as wildfires devoured tens of thousands of acres of coastal redwood forest, the fate of the park and its legendary tree took on an added significance.

After park rangers finally made the arduous journey over downed trees and damaged trails to reach the tree in late October – finding it blackened by flames, but otherwise intact – the Candelabra Tree and other old-growth redwoods that survived the wildfires have become symbols of hope and resilience.

“We think 2020 is this incredible year,” said retired Butano park ranger Michael Grant. “They’ve survived for hundreds of years.”

The complete history of the Candelabra Tree is lost to time. But it is thought to be at least 200 years old – young when it comes to redwoods, which can live as long as 2,500 years. (Their Latin name, Sequoia sempervirens, essentially means ‘everlasting tree.’)

The Candelabra Tree’s unusual shape is a sign it has likely survived other past traumas. Redwoods are among the few coniferous tree species that can sprout new growth along their branches, a trait that is critical to their longevity.

Most likely some past injury to the Candelabra Tree awoke dormant buds along its trunk that grew into the huge upright branches that give the tree its unique form, said Joanne Kerbavaz, an environmental scientist with California State Parks.

The tree’s unusual shape is thought to be what spared it from being cut down for lumber, as many other old-growth redwoods in the area were before the practice was outlawed in the 1970s.

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The tree has a 20-foot-wide base.

Handout

For many years the tree didn’t even have a name, though for decades visitors had likely been accessing what was once a logging road on private land to catch a glimpse of it. “People had been by there before,” Mr. Grant said. “It wasn’t like no one had discovered the tree. But it could have been 60 or 70 years ago.”

The tree only became a mainstay of the park after Hank Magnuski, a Silicon Valley engineer and avid hiker, decided to try to find a continuous path from the marshlands of the San Francisco Bay, up over the mountains and down to the Pacific Ocean.

The 67-kilometre trek in October, 2003, took Mr. Magnuski through Butano, where he tried to follow a route marked on his map that cut through the park, only to discover the trail was nowhere to be found.

That sparked a passion project for Mr. Magnuski, 76, who tracked down old maps and aerial photographs of the region and, along with friend Dave Croker, set about trying to locate the mysterious trail.

When they finally found it, “it was in complete disrepair,” Mr. Magnuski recalled, obliterated by poison oak and landslides.

Mr. Croker was the first to spot the tree, though Mr. Magnuski can’t recall who came up with the name Candelabra. “But it was certainly very fitting, because that’s exactly what it looks like,” he said. “It’s huge and it has this wonderful superstructure of multiple uplifting branches.”

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Over the next few years Mr. Magnuski and other volunteers with the Trail Center, a group of enthusiasts who maintain the area’s hiking paths, worked to repair the 2.5-kilometre path to the tree that would come to be known as the Candelabra Trail. Ahead of its grand opening in 2006, more than dozen volunteers posed for a photo side-by-side along the tree, not quite filling out its 20-foot-wide base.

Even after the tree became an official landmark in Butano, park staff avoided advertising the tree’s existence too extensively, worried that it could invite vandalism.

But people found it anyway. “It’s a bit of a mystical quest,” wrote Lary Huls, who made an annual hike to the Candelabra Tree. “When you get to the trail to the tree … you almost have to just feel it. Because, in fact, it’s behind you. So you turn 120 degrees and walk into the forest and there it is. And it’s huge and you wonder how you could have missed it.”

Since the fires much has changed in the park. Neighbouring Big Basin Redwoods State Park was all but destroyed in the blazes that tore across California in the summer. In Butano, the park’s water system was damaged by the wildfires, which also destroyed a backcountry campsite and historic youth camp, felled countless trees and took out several bridges.

Old-growth redwoods have a particular ability to withstand fire.

Handout

But the Candelabra Tree is an example of why the story of the fires is not entirely one of tragedy and loss, Ms. Kerbavaz said.

Scientists estimate that as many as 90 per cent of the redwoods in the burned area will ultimately survive. Old-growth redwoods have a particular ability to withstand fire, protected by thick bark and canopies that tower hundreds of feet above the forest floor, beyond the reach of the flames.

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Some scorched trees are already showing signs of regrowing their canopies and sprouting new limbs from the base and branches.

The ability of redwoods to regrow is one reason why scientists have yet to fully understand what the long-term impact of the fires will be on the region’s ecosystem. “It’s kind of a question as to what is death in an old redwood?” Ms. Kerbavaz said. “It makes it difficult to truly discuss what the impact is on old-growth trees.”

It will be a while before researchers can answer those questions. Butano is likely to be closed for at least a year for repairs. And some estimates of the damage suggest it could be many years before the entire park is fully restored and reopened.

That leaves the Candelabra Tree back where it started before Mr. Magnuski took his hike 17 years ago – hidden away at the end of a trail that is buried under fallen trees, poison oak and landslides, waiting to be discovered once again.

“I’m delighted,” Mr. Magnuski said of the Candelabra Tree’s survival. “It’s such a landmark within that park. It’s a great feeling to know that it’s going to continue to be a marvellous tree.”

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