LOS ANGELES (AP) – Lightning-triggered forest fires have killed thousands of giant sequoias this year, leading to a staggering two-year death toll that accounts for up to nearly one-fifth of the Earth’s largest trees, officials said Friday.
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Fires in Sequoia National Park and the surrounding Sequoia National Forest tore through more than a third of California’s groves, igniting 2,261 to 3,637 sequoias, the largest trees in volume.
Nearby forest fires last year killed an unprecedented 7,500 to 10,400 giant sequoias that are only native to about 70 groves scattered along the western side of the Sierra Nevada area. Losses now account for 13% to 19% of the 75,000 sequoias larger than 4 feet (1.2 meters) in diameter.
Fires so intense that burning hot enough and loud enough to kill so many giant sequoias – trees that were once considered almost fireproof – put an exclamation point on the impact of climate change. A warming planet that has created warmer periods of drought combined with a century of firefighting that suffocated forests with thick undergrowth has nourished flames that have sounded the death knell of trees descended from ancient civilizations.
“The sober reality is that we have seen another huge loss within a limited stock of these iconic trees, which are irreplaceable for many lifetimes,” said Clay Jordan, superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. “As spectacular as these trees are, we really can not take them for granted. To ensure that they are present for our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, action is needed. “
California has experienced its biggest fires in the last five years. Last year set a record for the most burned area, and this year it is number two so far.
Tree deaths this year could have been worse if heavy rain and snow on October 25 had not dampened the fire. Fires burned from August last year to January.
After last year’s fires in the castle and the SQF Complex surprised officials – and drove some tree lovers to tears – extraordinary measures were taken to save the largest and oldest trees this year.
The General Sherman tree – the largest living thing on earth – and other antiquities, which are the backdrop for images that rarely capture the grandeur and scope of the giant sequoias, were wrapped in foil blankets.
A fire retardant gel similar to absorbent used in baby diapers was dropped on canopies that can sit over 200 feet (60 meters) high. Sprinklers irrigated trunks, and combustible material was torn away from the trees.
The measures helped to protect Kæmpeskoven, the premier grove with massive trees in the park, but the measures could not be implemented everywhere.
Most of the Suwanee grove in the park burned in extreme fire in the Marble Fork by the drainage of the Kaweah River. The starvation complex of groves in the Sequoia National Forest was largely destroyed.
The largest damage was done in Redwood Mountain Grove in Kings Canyon National Park. The inferno became so intense that it created a cloud of fire that whipped up 60 mph (97 km / h) wind up.
A fire ecologist accurately predicted the areas that would burn hottest, but nothing could be done under such irregular conditions to save trees in the second-largest grove, said Christy Brigham, head of resource management and science for the parks.
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“It’s even more heartbreaking for me that we knew it and we could not take steps to protect it,” Brigham said.
Puffins with the worst damage stand like wooden cemeteries with black trunks hovering high in the sky. Canopies have faded from vibrant green to a rusty hue. Many damaged trees are expected to perish in three to five years.
The Save the Redwoods League, which lost the waterfall tree – one of the world’s largest – in 2020, suffered losses this year in its Red Hill Grove.
“We have to call this situation in the giant sequoia what it is: an emergency,” said league president Sam Hodder. “Just a few years ago, it was considered unprecedented to lose a handful of giant sequoias to a forest fire in one season, but now we are losing thousands.”
By 2013, the park had done climate modeling that predicted extreme fires would not endanger sequoias for another 50 years, Brigham said. But it was in the beginning of what became a punishing five-year drought that essentially broke the model.
In the middle of the drought in 2015, the park saw giant sequoias set on fire for the first time. Two fires in 2017 killed several giant sequoias. Just over 200 giant sequoias were killed in the fires, which served as a warning of what was to come.
“Then the Castle Fire happened, and it was like, ‘Oh, my God,'” Brigham said. “We went from the warning sign to hair on fire. Losing 7,000 trees in one fire is insane.”
An exact mortality rate from last year is not available because crews confirmed how many trees died when lightning struck on September 9 and ignited the Windy Fire in the Sequoia National Forest and two fires that merged to become the SQF Complex in the park. , said Brigham.
Not all the news in the park’s report on the fires was dismal.
While the flames burned into 27 groves and a large number of trees were burned, a lot of low-intensity fire that sequoias need to thrive will clear out the vegetation and the heat from the flames will open cones so they can disperse their seeds.
There was also minor damage in many of the groves, where the park has routinely used prescribed fire to clear out accumulated vegetation under cooler and more humid conditions. These successes underscored the need to expand this work and, where it is too risky, begin to thin out forests, Jordan said.
However, areas where fire burned so hot that seeds were killed and trees could not regenerate may need additional help. For the first time, the park is considering planting seedlings to preserve the species.
“I’m not ready to give up on giant sequoias,” Brigham said. “This is a call for action to better protect the remaining ancient growth and make our Sierra Nevada forests resistant to wildfires because the fire is on its way.”
However, if seedlings are planted, it will take hundreds of years to replace the lost trees.
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