California wildfires lap at feet of world’s largest trees

'General Sherman' of Sequoia National Park is threatened


National News

September 17, 2021 - 4:41 PM

Flames burn through brush on a hillside near an entrance station to Sequoia National Park on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Deep inside the heart of Sequoia National Park lies a cathedral-like grove that is home to thousands of towering sequoia trees. Known as the Giant Forest, it draws throngs of visitors each year who come to marvel at its behemoths, including the 275-foot General Sherman tree, known as the largest tree on Earth.

Wildfire is a natural part of the life cycle of sequoias — helping to release their seeds. But with climate change fueling a new breed of extreme fire in California, that ecological contract has been betrayed. Flames from a wildfire are lapping at the Giant Forest and threatening to decimate some of the greatest natural wonders of the world.

The 8,940-acre KNP Complex, composed of the Paradise and Colony fires, was roughly a mile from the ancient grove Wednesday, officials said.

The new fire underscores the growing danger that faster, more intense fires pose to the sequoias. The 2020 Castle fire wiped out 10% of their population, leaving behind a graveyard of charred trunks and scorched crowns.

Experts fear the latest conflagration could be catastrophic for the already endangered giant trees, which for many years were believed to be nearly impervious to fire.

“In a climatological sense, we are in uncharted territory,” said Crystal Kolden, a fire scientist at UC Merced who has been tracking the KNP Complex’s march toward the critically dry forest. “It’s just really not the type of conditions that you want to see fire burn under.”

Smoke fills the sky in the Sequoia National Forest above a giant sequoia on the Windy fire near the Tule River Reservation on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021 in Sequoia National Forest, CA. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Among the chief concerns are the record heat and devastating drought that have plagued California this summer, sapping water from the trees and impairing their defenses, Kolden said. The vapor pressure deficit, a metric that indicates how intensely a fire can burn, is also at record high levels.

It is a recipe for yet another crisis in a year of crises for warming Western forests, which are burning at a pace and scale unmatched in recent history. Already, more than 2.25 million acres have burned across California this year. The lighting-sparked KNP Complex, which ignited Sept. 10, is still 0% contained.

But Kolden and other experts said there is a glimmer of hope. Using methods such as long-term prescribed burn projects and recent park closures, forest officials have been preparing for the possibility of this scenario, and what happens in the hours and days to come will put that work to the test.

Many of the sequoias’ lowest branches are more than 100 feet off the ground, Kolden said, and fire crews are banking on flames staying nearer to the forest floor, where they can’t catch and climb to the crowns of the trees.

“At this point, it’s a lot of ‘wait and see’ to see if the conditions emerge that would be catastrophic,” she said, or if all that work “does what they meant it to do — which is protect that grove and allow the fire to burn naturally through.”

Mark Ruggiero, a spokesman for the Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, said firefighters on Wednesday were on high alert, stationed strategically to monitor the groves.

“We have a lot of crews up there … and we’re watching closely,” he said.

The fire has already prompted park workers and nearby residents to evacuate, leaving only the crews and the trees to face the advancing flames. Historically, giant sequoias have been armored against fire — even dependent on it, said Robert York, an adjunct professor of forestry at UC Berkeley who has been studying the rare species for 18 years.

The General Sherman tree, located in the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park, has its base wrapped in fire resistant material to protect it from the KNP Complex fire. Officials are hoping that controlled burns around the giant Sequoia trees will limit damage from the KNP Complex fire. (National Park Service/TNS)

Giant sequoias, found only in California and primarily in the southern Sierra Nevada, need fire to reproduce. They’re especially adapted to “a certain type of fire — that being a low-severity fire,” York said.