Hundreds of giant sequoias may have died in California fires

Wildfires in northern California may have killed hundreds of giant sequoias as they ravaged the groves of the majestic monarchs in the Sierra Nevada, an official said Wednesday.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Christy Brigham, chief science and resource management officer for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

The KNP complex caused by a lightning strike on Sept. 9 burned down in 15 giant redwood forests in the park, Brigham said.

More than 2,000 firefighters battled the blaze in sometimes treacherous terrain. On Wednesday afternoon, four people working on the fire were injured when a tree fell on them, the National Park Service reported.

All four were airlifted to hospitals and “while the injuries are serious, they are in stable condition,” says the report, which does not provide further details.

The KNP complex was only 11% contained after burning 134 square miles (347 square kilometers) of forest. Cooler weather has helped subside the flames and the area could see some rain on Friday, forecasters said.

The fire’s impact on the giant sequoia forests was mixed. Most saw low to medium intensity fire behavior that redwoods have evolved to survive, Brigham said.

However, it appeared that two groves, including one with 5,000 trees, were burned by a high-intensity fire that can send out flames of 100 feet (30 meters) capable of burning the towering treetops.

That leaves monarchs at risk of going up “like a horrible Roman candle,” Brigham said.

Two burned trees fell in the Giant Forest, which is home to some 2,000 redwoods, including the General Sherman tree, which is considered the largest in the world by volume. However, the most notable trees survived and Brigham said the grove appeared to be mostly intact.

Firefighters have taken extraordinary measures to protect redwoods by wrapping fire-resistant material around the bases of some giants, raking and clearing vegetation around them, installing sprinklers, and spraying some with water or fire retardant gel.

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However, the full extent of the damage will not be known for months, Brigham said. Firefighters are still busy protecting trees, homes and lives or cannot safely reach steep, remote groves that lack roads or even trails, he said.

To the south, the Windy Fire had burned at least 74 redwoods, Garrett Dickman told the Los Angeles Times. The wildfire botanist has logged damage as part of a redwood task force that prepares and assesses trees in the fire zone.

In a grove, Dickman counted 29 redwoods that were “freshly cremated,” he told CNN.

“There were four of those that had been burned so badly that they had fallen over,” he said.

The 152-acre (395-square-kilometer) fire was 75% contained.

Giant sequoias grow naturally only in the Sierra Nevada. The most massive trees in the world, they can rise to more than 250 feet (76 meters) with trunks 20 feet (6 meters) in diameter and live for thousands of years.

Trees need low intensity fire to reproduce. The flames thin the forest of competitors like cedars, clearing the shade and the heat causes the seedlings to open. But firefighters say the recent fires have been much more intense because firefighting efforts left more brush that was completely dried up by drought, driven by climate change.

Last year’s castle fire in and around Sequoia National Park is estimated to have killed as many as 10,600 giant sequoia trees, or between 10% and 14% of the total population.

While some groves may have received only partial fire damage and will recover, every giant sequoia burned is a loss, Brigham said.

“When you stand next to a tree so big and so old, between 1,000 and 2,000 years old, the loss of anyone is a heartbreak,” he said. “It cannot be recovered, it is irreplaceable.”

California fires have burned more than 3,000 square miles (7,800 square kilometers) so far in 2021, destroying more than 3,000 homes, commercial property and other structures. Warmer and drier weather, along with decades of fire suppression, have contributed to an increase in the number of acres burned by wildfires, fire scientists say. And the problem is compounded by a western mega-drought of more than 20 years that studies link to human-caused climate change.

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