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Sequoia National Park fire: Flames enter at least four giant sequoia groves

Mercury News logo Mercury News 9/17/2021 Paul Rogers
a tree with smoke coming out of it: The Windy Fire burns in Sequoia National Forest, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. The fire has burned into the Peyrone Sequoia Grove and continues to threaten other sequoias, according to fire officials. (AP Photo/Noah Berger) © Provided by Mercury News The Windy Fire burns in Sequoia National Forest, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. The fire has burned into the Peyrone Sequoia Grove and continues to threaten other sequoias, according to fire officials. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Firefighters on Friday were able to keep a slowly advancing wildfire away from the most famous grove of giant sequoia trees at Sequoia National Park, the Giant Forest, which is home to five of the world’s 10 largest trees, including the largest of them all, the General Sherman Tree.

But as fire crews and park lovers focused attention on that iconic area — where some of the massive trees had been wrapped with fireproof aluminum blankets — nearby flames were already burning into different groves of ancient sequoias with trees at least 200 feet tall and 2,000 years old.

One grove on fire 30 miles to the south in Sequoia National Forest, Long Meadow Grove, was visited 21 years ago by former President Bill Clinton when he signed a proclamation establishing Sequoia National Monument at the area’s famous “Trail of 100 Giants.”

“These groves are just as impressive and just as ecologically important to the forest,” said Tim Borden, sequoia restoration and stewardship manager at Save the Redwoods League, a San Francisco environmental group. “They just aren’t as well known. My heart sinks when I think about it.”

Other groves where flames had entered in recent days include Peyrone North and South groves in Sequoia National Forest, and Oriole Lake Grove, in Sequoia National Park, five miles south of Giant Forest.

Fire officials said they do not know yet how severe the damage might have been in the areas, which are in steep, remote terrain, and shrouded by smoke.

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Giant sequoias have evolved with fires over millions of years and can benefit from low-intensity blazes that open their seed cones. But larger, more intense fires, driven by drought, hotter temperatures from climate change and dead trees from a century of fire suppression have been posing increasing threats to the iconic trees, which are cousins of California’s coast redwoods.

There are about 70 groves of giant sequoias in the world, all in California’s Central and Southern Sierra Nevada.

Two fires, the Colony Fire and the Paradise Fire, expanded to 11,365 acres Friday. Both began with lightning strikes on Sept. 10. They merged near Generals Highway in Sequoia National Park on Thursday, and were slightly less than 1 mile west of the Giant Forest, a landmark named by John Muir in 1875 and visited by millions of people a year. Although there were 482 firefighters battling the two blazes, known as the KNP Complex, there was still 0% containment.

At the Giant Forest, national park crews have worked since the 1970s to thin brush and conduct prescribed burns to reduce the risk of wildfire. On Friday, that work gave fire managers hope.

“We’ve got a lot of resources working up in there,” said Jon Wallace, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fire commander from Atlanta who was helping oversee firefighting operations. “Our primary plan is to exclude fire completely from the Giant Forest.”

But in many of the other groves in the park and Sequoia National Forest on its southern flank, there has been little such work, Borden noted. A lack of federal funding, local concerns about smoke from controlled burns, and red tape have slowed efforts to improve fire resiliency. California’s drought from 2012 to 2016 killed millions of firs, incense cedars, pines and other trees in the Southern Sierra Nevada area, and those are now providing fuel around many of the untreated sequoia groves for potentially devastating fires.

Last year, the Castle Fire killed between 7,500 and 10,600 giant sequoias, an estimated 10% to 14% of all the sequoias in the world, mostly in Sequoia National Forest. Then, 22 groves burned, about 10 of them severely. Biologists are now studying whether to replant some of those areas with giant sequoia seeds and saplings.

Borden said Friday that he worries a similar event is now playing out this week. Not only are the two fires in Sequoia National Park threatening multiple groves, a third fire 30 miles to the south, the Windy Fire, on Friday had burned 6,849 acres with 0% containment. It is burning on the Tule River Indian Reservation and in Sequoia National Forest in Tulare County.

“This is very much setting up to be a repeat of the Castle Fire, with mortality on a similar scale,” Borden said.

On Friday, there were 614 firefighters on the Windy Fire.

a wooden bench on the side of the road: The General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest tree by volume, which is 275 feet tall and 102 feet around at the base, is wrapped in a fireproof blanket on Thursday Sept. 16, 2021 at Sequoia National Park during the KNP Complex Fire. (Photo: US Forest Service) © Provided by Mercury News The General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest tree by volume, which is 275 feet tall and 102 feet around at the base, is wrapped in a fireproof blanket on Thursday Sept. 16, 2021 at Sequoia National Park during the KNP Complex Fire. (Photo: US Forest Service)

To the north, Wallace said that five engine crews are in the Giant Forest removing flammable material from around the huge trees. More hoses and sprinkler systems were arriving to help, he said, to protect not only trees but buildings and campgrounds in the park’s Lodgepole Village area. Meanwhile, Cal Fire crews were cutting bulldozer lines just outside Sequoia National Park’s western boundary to protect the community of Three Rivers, park employee housing and the park’s Foothills Visitor Center.

If the flames reach the Giant Forest in the coming days, Wallace said, he expects to work with park crews who have done prescribed fires there in years past to start back fires to remove flammable brush before it can fuel larger flames that could reach into the tree canopies and kill the massive trees.

“There’s a lot of work going on, a lot of good stuff going on,” he said “and we are going to keep hammering away at it.”

a group of people sitting on a bench in front of a tree: Former President Bill Clinton speaks near the Trail of 100 Giants in Sequoia National Forest, April 15, 2000, before signing a proclamation creating the Giant Sequoia National Monument that will protect groves of ancient sequoias and the forests that surround them. On Friday Sept. 17, 2021, flames from the Windy Fire entered the grove. (AP Photo/Bakersfield Californian, Henry A. Barrios, File) © Provided by Mercury News Former President Bill Clinton speaks near the Trail of 100 Giants in Sequoia National Forest, April 15, 2000, before signing a proclamation creating the Giant Sequoia National Monument that will protect groves of ancient sequoias and the forests that surround them. On Friday Sept. 17, 2021, flames from the Windy Fire entered the grove. (AP Photo/Bakersfield Californian, Henry A. Barrios, File)
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