Fires killed thousands of sequoias in southern Sierra Nevada
Information about Fires killed thousands of sequoias in southern Sierra Nevada
As many as 3,600 large giant sequoias perished in the flames of twin wildfires that ignited during a lightning storm in mid-September and rampaged through 27 groves of the behemoths in the southern Sierra Nevada, officials said during a media briefing Friday.
More than two dozen groves of the towering trees were scorched as the KNP Complex and Windy fires exploded through parched vegetation, exacerbated at times by fierce winds and thunderstorms.
The somber news was delivered in the Grant Grove of Kings Canyon National Park, in the shadow of the General Grant Tree — considered the second largest tree on Earth. Last month, the massive tree, which rises more than 260 feet, was still swaddled in a fire-resistant aluminum blanket to protect it from the still-active KNP Complex fire that torched more than 88,300 acres in rugged country in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.
Though it’s no longer a threat, the KNP — still just 75% contained — continues to chew through pockets of heavy fuel.
Meanwhile, crews have fully contained the Windy fire to the south, which burned upward of 97,500 acres in the Tule River Indian Reservation and Sequoia National Forest.
The fires burned into at least 27 groves of the giant trees, natural wonders that can live more than 3,000 years and rise over 250 feet.
The destruction follows last year’s devasting Castle fire, which killed at least one-tenth of the world’s population of giant sequoias. Among the three fires, officials estimate nearly 20% of all sequoias perished in the last 14 months.
Officials had steeled themselves for the devastation, though the massive trees have survived — and thrived — amid wildfire for thousands of yeas.
With their towering canopies and thick bark, giant sequoias are adapted to withstand low-intensity fire, and even need it to reproduce. But ferocious climate-change-fueled fires of recent years have proved fatal to the trees that experts once thought were impervious to flames.
Officials on Friday said that between 2,261 and 3,637 sequoias with a base of 4 feet or more in diameter were either killed or so severely damaged that they would die in the next three to five years.
Since 2015, high-severity fires have killed large giant sequoias “in much greater numbers than has ever been recorded,” officials with the National Park Service said. Drought has also contributed to their decline, weakening their defenses and making them susceptible to incursions from bark beetles, another scourge to which they’ve historically been immune.
The KNP Complex and Windy fires ignited Sept. 9 amid thunderstorms that roiled the region and quickly exploded amid the parched landscape. As crews struggled to battle flames raging in steep, difficult-to-access areas, a devastating revelation emerged: The flames had pushed in the direction of the famed Giant Forest, home to some 2,000 giant sequoias, including the largest tree in the world.
As the grim reality set in, crews in mid-September wrapped the hulking base of the General Sherman tree — and some other well-known giants — in aluminum material typically used to protect buildings. General Sherman, considered the largest tree by volume, and many other nearby trees survived, in part, because of decades of prescribed burns to clear out vegetation in the tourist mecca.
But prospects were dimmer for more remote, less-manicured groves.
Garrett Dickman, a botanist assigned to the Windy fire, expressed fears weeks ago that tree mortality rates could rival those of the 2020 Castle fire, which burned at least 7,500 trees.
Aided by a sequoia task force, Dickman trekked through the backcountry to prepare trees for fire when possible and treat them after flames had passed through. He saw heavily scorched trees and entire groves he estimated had been decimated.
As the crews made their way through the burn zone, Dickman kept a tally of dead trees. He counted 74 by early October, but officials now say that number is far greater.