How’s this for a coincidence: We were planning to run a story on rising fire danger anyway, and the Martin fire in Bonny Doon just happens to, well, happen. And we had this great profile Bruce Newmanwrote about Steve Liebenberg, a Santa Cruz lumberjack whose job is not to kill trees, but to keep them alive. His tree service company’s gig: climb tall redwoods and perform first aid. One time in 1996, at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, he climbed a burning tree with a fire hose.

Liebenberg was dragging a fire hose and a chain saw up toward a knothole that probably first blinked open before Columbus sailed to America. Though it was a dozen years ago, the memory of that fire never leaves him.

Still rugged at 58, Liebenberg is the most veteran woodsman working in California’s most venerable forest during an already devastating fire season, and his privately owned tree service is the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s last line of defense. On Wednesday, he raced to the Bonny Doon fire to help evacuate horses.

“When there’s something nobody else can do, a tree on fire that nobody else can put out,” says Liebenberg, “they call me.”

Billowing black smoke from deep within the tree’s spidery network of rot – varicose veins of decay, inside a trunk more than 10 feet in diameter – revealed that the tallest redwood in the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park near Santa Cruz was being consumed from the inside out.

As he pumped 500 gallons of water into the knothole, he could hear the tree’s innards heave a hissing, reptilian sigh as water met the rising fire.

“If you have a lot of water and a lot of heat in a confined area, it will blow the
tree to pieces,” he says. “Steam is incredibly powerful. And I’m on the tree. So if it blows, I’m gone.”

The “life and limb” part of the headline was my idea. Oh yeah, he’s afraid of heights. A video shows him in action.