California wildfires burn thousands of giant sequoia trees
Angels Bushfires triggered by lightning have killed thousands of giant sequoia trees this year, resulting in a massive two-year death toll that represents nearly a fifth of the largest trees on Earth, officials said Friday.
Fires in Sequoia National Park and the surrounding Sequoia National Forest tore down more than a third of California’s orchards and set fire to an estimated 2,261 to 3,637 trees, the largest by volume.
Nearby bushfires last year killed an unprecedented 7,500 to 10,400 giant sequoias found only in about 70 orchards scattered along the western side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Losses now account for 13% to 19% of the 75,000 sequoias larger than 4 feet (1.2 m) in diameter.
The flames are intense enough to burn and loud enough to kill many giant sequoias — trees that were once considered almost fire-resistant — put an exclamation point on the impact of climate change. A warming planet, hotter droughts, and a century of fire suppression that choked forests with thick trees ignited flames that sounded the death knell for trees dating back to ancient civilizations.
“The shocking truth is that we have witnessed yet another huge loss within a limited group of these distinctive and irreplaceable trees of many ages,” said Clay Jordan, Superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. “With such amazing trees, we really can’t take it for granted. To make sure they are there for our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, some action is necessary.”
California has experienced the largest fires in the past five years. Last year set a record for most areas burned and this year it ranks second so far.
This year’s tree death could have been worse if the heavy rain and snow on October 25 had not extinguished the fires. The fire raged from August of last year to January.
After last year’s fires at the castle and SQF complex that surprised officials – and brought some tree lovers to tears – extraordinary measures were taken to save this year’s largest and oldest trees.
General Sherman’s tree – the largest living creature on Earth – and other ancients that serve as a backdrop to rarely captured images of the grandeur and scale of giant sequoias have been wrapped in tin blankets.
A fire-resistant gel, similar to the absorbent material used in baby diapers, was dropped on curtains that could reach a height of 200 feet (60 meters). Sprinklers watered logs and flammable materials were washed away from the trees.
The measures helped spare the giant forest, the first grove of gigantic trees in the park, but the measures could not be applied everywhere.
The greater part of the park’s tray grove burned in a severe fire in the marble fork of the Kaweah River drain. The Hunger Complex in Sequoia National Forest has been largely destroyed.
The most damage occurred at Redwood Mountain Grove in Kings Canyon National Park. Hell got so intense that it caused a cloud of fire that generated winds of up to 60 mph (97 km/h).
The fire ecologist accurately predicted which areas would burn hotter, but nothing could be done in such erratic conditions to save the trees in the second-largest grove, said Christy Brigham, chief of the Parks Resource and Science Department.
“This is heartbreaking to me because we knew him and weren’t able to take action to protect him,” Brigham said.
The orchards of the worst damage stand like wooden tombs with black trunks rising high into the sky. The curtains faded from a vibrant green to a rusty shade. Many affected trees are expected to die within three to five years.
Save the Redwoods League, which lost its waterfall tree – one of the largest in the world – in 2020, has suffered losses this year at Red Hill Grove.
League President Sam Hodder said, “We need to name this situation in giant sequoia: an emergency. Just a few years ago, it was unprecedented to lose a handful of giant sequoia to a wildfire in one season, but now we are losing thousands.”
Brigham said that in 2013, the park did climate modeling that predicted that intense fires would not endanger the Sequoia for another 50 years. But this was the beginning of what became a severe five-year drought that essentially shattered the model.
Amid a drought in 2015, the park saw a giant sequoia burn for the first time. Two fires in 2017 killed more giant sequoias. Just over 200 giant sequoias were killed in the fires that were a warning of what was to come.
“Then the castle fire broke out and it was like, ‘Oh my God.’ We went from the warning sign to the flaming hair. Losing 7,000 trees in one fire is insane,” Brigham said.
An accurate death tally is not available from last year because crews were confirming how many trees died when lightning struck on September 9, sparking the Windy Fire in Sequoia National Forest and two fires that merged to become the park’s SQF complex, Brigham said.
Not all of the news in the park’s report on the fires was bleak.
While 27 orchards were ablaze and large numbers of trees were burned, many of the low-intensity fires that reptiles need to thrive will remove vegetation and the heat from the flames will open the cones so they can spread their seeds.
There was also less damage in many of the orchards as the park routinely used prescribed fire to remove overgrown vegetation under cooler, wetter conditions. Those successes, Jordan said, underscore the need to expand this business and, where risky, start reducing forests.
However, areas that have caught fire so badly that the seeds are killed and the trees cannot regenerate, may need extra help. For the first time, the garden is studying planting seedlings to preserve the species.
“I’m not ready to give up the giant sequoia,” Brigham said. “This is a call to action to better protect the remaining old growth and make the Sierra Nevada forests resilient to wildfires, because the fire is coming.”
However, if you plant seedlings, it will take hundreds of years to make up for the lost trees.
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