The Times’s climate editor, Hannah Fairfield, liked the idea. And in October, after lots of Zoom interviews with scientists and some complicated arrangements to visit burn zones (some of which were still closed to the public), the photographer Max Whittaker and I took the first of our reporting trips. Themes of shock and urgency emerged, even among coolheaded scientists. I would later underscore the point in the article, writing:
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.
What we found in the blackened forests was, at turns, heartbreaking, surreal and hopeful.
Heartbreaking because so many massive trees that had stood stoically in one place, some for thousands of years, were snuffed out in an instant. As one scientist said 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 turned the color of spent charcoal all the way to the horizon (“It’ll never come back like it was,” the park’s botanist said). Or a lush green forest of rigid-straight redwoods turned into a jumble of blacks and browns (“The forest I saw as a kid will not be back for some time,” an ecologist said).
Hopeful because there are signs of life, if you look hard enough.
But this is not a story of false optimism. The story we published — that I wrote, that Max photographed, and that a team of Times journalists wrapped in a visual feast of haunting beauty — was about dead trees, but also something a bit harder to capture: our scrambled sense of timelessness and continuity.
Standing in those places presented questions that felt overwhelming, but wholly in line for 2020: What is it that we have lost? And what do we have left to lose?