YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. –
California firefighters gained ground Monday in the battle against a wildfire threatening a giant sequoia grove and a small community in Yosemite National Park.
The Washburn Fire on the western flank of the Sierra Nevada had burned about 4.2 square miles (10.9 square kilometers) but was 22% contained as of Monday night, according to an incident update.
The fire was a threat to more than 500 mature redwood trees in the park’s Mariposa Grove and the nearby community of Wawona, which has been evacuated.
The area in the southern part of Yosemite was closed to visitors, but the rest of the national park remained open.
Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley have been protected since President Abraham Lincoln signed a law in 1864.
A sprinkler system was installed within the grove to maintain humidity, and there were no reports of severe damage to any named trees, including the 3,000-year-old Grizzly Giant.
“Fortunately, Mariposa Grove has a long history of prescribed burning and studies have shown that these efforts reduce the impacts of high-severity unwanted fires,” a National Park Service statement said.
A heat advisory was issued for the Central Valley below the Sierra, while a high temperature of 96 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) was recorded in the fire area for the town of Wawona, where hundreds of tourists and Residents were forced to evacuate last Friday.
“Fortunately, there have been no erratic winds that have affected fire behavior,” Fire Information Officer Marc Peebles said earlier in the day. “We have the high pressure that is over the top of the fire that is causing the temperatures to rise. However, we do get a decent amount of moisture at night which moderates fire behavior and allows our night shift firefighters to do a good job.”
Native to only about 70 groves scattered along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, giant sequoias were once considered impervious to flames but have become increasingly vulnerable to wildfires, fueled by a buildup of brush. After a century of fire suppression and the impact of droughts exacerbated by climate change, they have become more intense and destructive.
Wildfires sparked by lightning in the past two years have killed up to a fifth of the estimated 75,000 large sequoias, which are the largest trees by volume and a major draw for tourists.
There was no obvious natural spark for the fire that broke out Thursday along the park’s Washburn Trail. Visitors walking through the grove reported smoke.
A strong wind storm hit the grove more than a year ago and felled 15 giant sequoias, along with many other trees.
The fallen trees, along with a large number of pine trees killed by bark beetles, provided enough fuel for the flames.
In Utah on Saturday, smoke and ash billowing from a growing wildfire in rural Tooele County reached Salt Lake City. By Monday night, the Jacob City Fire had grown to 6.4 square miles (16.6 square kilometers), with 19% containment, officials said.
Elsewhere in Utah, firefighters battling high winds battled the 15.9-square-mile (41-square-kilometer) Halfway Hill Fire in Filmore. Police on Saturday arrested four men who investigators say abandoned a campfire that started the fire.
So far in 2022, more than 35,000 wildfires have burned nearly 4.7 million acres (1.9 million hectares) in the US, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, well above average from both wildfires and acres burned.