Raging California wildfires threaten ancient sequoia forest

The extraordinary intensity of the California wildfires could overwhelm the sequoia trees, some thousands of years old.

Smoke from the Windy Fire, left, rises above a giant sequoia in California's Sequoia National Forest [Noah Berger/AP Photo]

Firefighters wrapped the base of the world’s largest tree in a fire-resistant blanket as they tried to save a grove of gigantic old-growth sequoias from wildfires burning in California’s rugged Sierra Nevada.

The colossal “General Sherman” tree in Sequoia National Park, the Giant Forest Museum and other buildings were wrapped for protection against the possibility of intense flames, fire spokeswoman Rebecca Paterson said.

A wildfire last year killed thousands of sequoias, some as tall as high-rises and thousands of years old. Now, firefighters are using aluminium wrapping and prescribed burns – fires set on purpose to remove other types of trees and vegetation that would otherwise feed approaching wildfires — to help protect the sequoias.

The wrapping can withstand intensive heat for short periods. Federal officials say they have been using the material for several years throughout the US West to protect sensitive structures from flames.

A member of the Roosevelt Hotshot Crew clears a firebreak while battling the Windy Fire on September 16 in the Tule River Reservation, California. His crew had travelled from Colorado [Noah Berger/AP Photo]

An historic drought and heatwaves tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight in the American West where firefighters have been on maximum alert for 65 days, a new record. The region has become much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.

Near Lake Tahoe, some homes that were wrapped in protective material survived a recent wildfire while others nearby were destroyed.

The Colony Fire, one of two burning in Sequoia National Park, was expected to reach the Giant Forest, a grove of 2,000 sequoias, within days. The fire did not grow significantly on Thursday as a layer of smoke reduced its spread in the morning, fire spokeswoman Katy Hooper said.

The General Sherman tree is the largest in the world by volume, at 1,487 cubic meters (52,508 cubic feet), according to the National Park Service. It towers 84 metres (275 feet) high and has a circumference of 31 metres (103 feet) at ground level.


Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Superintendent Clay Jordan rallied firefighters during a morning briefing on September 16 on the need to protect the giant sequoia trees from the coming fires [Noah Berger/AP Photo]

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Superintendent Clay Jordan stressed the importance of protecting the massive trees from high-intensity fire during a briefing for firefighters.

A 50-year history of using prescribed burns in the parks’ sequoia groves was expected to help the giant trees survive by lessening the impact if flames reach them.

A “robust fire history of prescribed fire in that area is reason for optimism,” Paterson said. “Hopefully, the giant forest will emerge from this unscathed.”

Giant sequoias are adapted to fire, which can help them thrive by releasing seeds from their cones and creating clearings that allow young sequoias to grow. But the extraordinary intensity of fires – fuelled by climate change – can overwhelm the trees.

That happened last year when the Castle Fire killed what studies estimate were 7,500 to 10,600 large sequoias, according to the National Park Service.

A national interagency fire management team took command of efforts to fight the 30-square-kilometre (11.5-square-mile) Paradise Fire and the eight-square-kilometre (three-square-mile) Colony Fire, which was closest to the grove. Operations to burn away vegetation and other fuel that could feed the flames were done in that area.

The fires forced the evacuation of the park this week, and parts of the town of Three Rivers outside the main entrance remained evacuated.

To the south, a fire on the Tule River Indian Reservation and in Giant Sequoia National Monument grew significantly overnight to more than 15 square kilometres (six square miles), and crews had no containment of it, a Sequoia National Forest statement said.

The Windy Fire, also started by lightning, has burned into part of the Peyronie Sequoia Grove in the national monument, and other groves were threatened.

“Due to inaccessible terrain, a preliminary assessment of the fire’s effects on giant sequoia trees within the grove will be difficult and may take days to complete,” the statement said.

The fire led the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office to warn the communities of Ponderosa, Quaking Aspen, Johnsondale and Camp Whitsett, and a Boy Scouts camp to be ready to evacuate if necessary.

The wildfires are among the latest in a long summer of blazes that have scorched nearly 9,195 square kilometres (3,550 square miles)  in California, destroying hundreds of homes.

Source: AP