YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. (AP) — A wildfire threatening a grove of California giant sequoia trees in Yosemite National Park was burning eastward in the Sierra National Forest on Wednesday.
The Washburn Fire is one of dozens of blazes burning through drought-parched ground in the western U.S. It has grown in size to more than 15 square kilometers (5.8 square miles), pushing containment from 22% to 17%.
“As the fire grew, our containment decreased,” said Nancy Philippe, fire information spokeswoman.
Firefighting preparations had already begun in the national forest.
“We brought people from the Sierra National Forest early on, anticipating that this could happen,” Philippe said.
Containment lines within the park, including along the edge of the grove, were holding tight, Firefighting Operations Officer Matt Ahearn said in a video briefing.
The fire had been entirely within the national park since it broke out on July 7, when visitors to the Mariposa Grove of ancient redwoods reported smoke.
Authorities have not said how the fire started and whether it was a crime or some kind of accident.
Park Superintendent Cicely Muldoon said at a community meeting this week that it was ruled a “human-caused fire” because there was no lightning that day.
Philippe said a park ranger who is a trained investigator was on the scene almost immediately when the fire was reported, and a police team is continuing to investigate.
Philippe said he believed the ignition point had been found, but declined to disclose any further information, citing the active investigation.
The fire in southern Yosemite forced the evacuation of hundreds of visitors and residents of the small community of Wawona, but the rest of the park remained open to summer crowds.
One firefighter suffered a heat injury and recovered, but no structures were damaged.
The flames mostly skirted Mariposa Grove, though they left their mark on some of the trees.
The Galen Clark tree, named for the park’s first ranger, and three trees that greet visitors as they arrive at the popular destination were partially charred, but none were expected to die because their crowns did not burn, said Garrett Dickman, a park forest manager. environmentalist who toured the site.
Dickman credited periodic intentional burns to the undergrowth below towering trees with helping the grove survive its first wildfire in more than a century.
Small, targeted fires ignited over the past 50 years essentially stopped the fire when it hit Mariposa Grove and allowed firefighters to stand their ground and install sprinklers to further protect the world’s largest trees, Dickman said.
“We’ve been preparing for the Washburn fire for decades,” said Dickman, who works for the park. “He really died as soon as he hit the grove.”
Redwoods are adapted to fire and depend on it to survive. But more than a century of aggressive fire suppression has left forests choked with dense vegetation and fallen wood that has provided fuel for massive wildfires that have grown more intense during an ongoing drought and exacerbated by climate change.
The so-called prescribed burns, most recently conducted at the grove in 2018, mimic low-intensity fires that help redwoods by clearing fallen branches, flammable needles and smaller trees that might compete with them for light and water. . The heat from the fires also helps the cones open to spread their seeds.
Although intentional burns have been carried out on redwoods since the 1960s, they are increasingly seen as a necessity to save the massive trees. Once thought to be nearly fireproof, up to 20% of all giant sequoias, native only to the Sierra Nevada mountain range, have died in the last two years during intense wildfires.
Fighting fire with fire, used in limited applications to reduce threats to property or landmarks, is risky business and has gotten out of hand at times.
In New Mexico, firefighters were working Tuesday to restore mountainsides turned to ash by the largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history that erupted in early April when prescribed burns by the US Forest Service. they escaped containment after missteps and miscalculations.
The Santa Fe County Commission, in an afternoon meeting, slammed federal officials and unanimously passed a resolution urging the Forest Service to conduct a more comprehensive environmental review to reduce the threat of wildfires in the mountains that border the city. capital.
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.
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