California fires may have killed hundreds of giant sequoias: NPR

Flames are burning a tree as part of the Windy Fire in the Trail of 100 Giants grove last month in the Sequoia National Forest, California.

Noah Berger / AP

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Noah Berger / AP

Flames are burning a tree as part of the Windy Fire in the Trail of 100 Giants grove last month in the Sequoia National Forest, California.

Noah Berger / AP

LOS ANGELES – Northern California forest fires may have killed hundreds of giant sequoias as they swept through the groves of the majestic monarchs of the Sierra Nevada, an official said Wednesday.

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

The lightning-caused KNP complex that erupted on Sept. 9 has burned down 15 giant sequoia groves in the park, Brigham said.

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

The four were transported to hospitals, and “while the injuries are serious, they are in stable condition,” the report said. It gave no other details.

The KNP complex contained only 11% after burning 344 square kilometers of forest. Colder weather has helped the flames slow down and the area could see some rain on Friday, forecasters said.

The impact of the fire on giant sequoia groves was mixed. Most experienced low- to medium-intensity fire behaviors that the sequois have evolved to survive, Brigham said.

It turned out, however, that two groves — including one with 5,000 trees — were burned by high-intensity fire that could send up to 30-foot-long flames capable of burning the canopies of the towering trees.

It leaves the monarchs in danger of going up “like a terrible Roman light,” Brigham said.

Two burned trees fell in the Giant Forest, home to about 2,000 sequoias, including the General Sherman Tree, considered the world’s largest by volume. The most notable trees, however, survived, and Brigham said the grove for the most part appeared to be intact.

Firefighters have taken extraordinary measures to protect sequoias by wrapping fireproof material around some giants’ bases, tearing and clearing vegetation around them, installing sprinklers and spraying something with water or fire-retardant gel.

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

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

In a grove, Dickman counted 29 sequoias that were “just burned,” he told CNN.

“There were four of them who had burned so hot that they had fallen over,” he said.

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

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

The trees need low-intensity fire to reproduce. Flames thin out the forest of competitors such as cedar trees, clear away shade, and the heat causes the seedlings to open up. But firefighters say the recent flames have been much more intense because firefighting efforts left more undergrowth, 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 sequoias or 10% to 14% of the entire population.

Although some groves may have only received uneven fire damage and will recover, each burned giant sequoia is a loss, Brigham said.

“When you stand by such a large and so old tree, 1,000 to 2,000 years old, the loss is a heartache,” she said. “You can not get it back, it’s irreplaceable.”

California fires have burned more than 3,800 square miles (7,800 square miles) so far in 2021, destroying more than 3,000 homes, commercial real estate and other structures. Warmer and drier weather combined with decades of firefighting has contributed to an increase in the number of acres burned by forest fires, fire researchers say. And the problem is exacerbated by a more than 20-year-old western mega-drought investigating links to man-made climate change.

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