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A complex of lightning-triggered forest fires in California’s Sierra Nevada has exploded, causing evacuations and the closure of Sequoia National Park, where the fire is burning near the park’s namesake trees.

The KNP complex fire, consisting of the Paradise and Colony fires, spread through dense, mountainous vegetation on September 9. As of Wednesday morning, the fire had burned more than 7,000 acres.

Mandatory evacuations are in effect in Sequoia National Park and the Trois Rivières region, and the blaze continues to threaten ancient groves of giant trees growing on the western slope of the mountain range.

About 350 people are now fighting the blaze and additional reinforcements are on their way, including a specialized management team that will take control of the complex by Thursday morning. But firefighting efforts are complicated by smoke, which obscures the visibility of air drops, and by the fact that the flames burn over steep and rugged terrain, reducing access to the ground.

All Sequoia facilities have been closed and permits to start the wilderness trails have been canceled. Kings Canyon National Park, north of Sequoia, remained open.

California wildfires close Sequoia National Park, cause evacuations |  California
A sign announces the closure of Sequoia National Park, where the fires of the KNP complex are burning. Photograph: Noah Berger / AP

“As a community, we are going to be tested,” Clay Jordan, superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, said at a community meeting Tuesday night, noting that it would likely get worse before it gets better.

Fueled by higher temperatures and extreme drought conditions, California has already struggled with more than 7,400 wildfires this year, burning more than 2.2 million acres. The KNP complex is one of 12 large fires active across the state. Firefighters made progress on two of the most devastating conflagrations, fighting over the largest blaze in state history – the Dixie blaze – at 75 percent after burning nearly 960,500 acres in northern the Sierra and the south of the Cascades region. Near Lake Tahoe, containment of the Caldor fire of more than 219,260 acres rose to 70% on Wednesday.

Officials at the KNP complex said firefighting resources were limited due to the number of fires burning in the west, but hoped crews would do whatever they could to protect the giant sequoias for which the park bears. the name.

The flames burn within a mile of the iconic Giant Forest, a grove of more than 2,000 giant sequoias, including the General Sherman tree, the largest tree on Earth by volume, which researchers believe has been alive for over. 2,300 years old.

“Some of these trees are more important than our buildings,” said Clay Jordan, director of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. “We want people to come 200 or 300 years from now to take advantage of these trees.”

Redwoods are incredibly hardy and have evolved to thrive in fire. Their spongy red bark has adapted to protect them from heat, while their seed-bearing cones depend on flames to open, and fires can help clear undergrowth to create space for seedlings. But as fires get more extreme, burning hotter and higher in the canopy, they can devastate the tree’s defenses, especially those already weakened by drought, disease and insect infestations.

California wildfires close Sequoia National Park, cause evacuations |  California
The KNP Complex fire burns less than a mile from the iconic General Sherman Tree, shown here in 2015. Photograph: 105897.000000 / Getty Images / Altrendo

Scientists estimate that as many as 10,600 redwoods were killed when the castle fire ravaged the area last year, or about 42% of the giant trees that stood in its way. It was an alarming discovery that highlighted another devastating effect of climate change on landscapes and ecosystems.

“Redwoods are a tree that adapts to fire,” said Mark Ruggiero, fire information manager for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. “Having fire is important for redwoods to thrive, but when we get such intense fires, even redwoods can’t resist them. “

There is always hope. Giant sequoias are closely related to the towering, slender sequoias that grow along the northern California coast and have the same relationship to fire. Likewise, they are put to the test by the biggest fires, but a year after the CZU complex fire burned 97% of Big Basin Redwoods State Park on the coast between San Francisco and the Bay of Monterey, there are promising signs of rebirth. Green shoots grow on blackened trunks, and many of the park’s most beloved trees have survived.

As the flames approached the giant forest of Sequoia National Park, Rebecca Paterson, the KNP Complex’s fire information manager, said she felt confident about the resilience of the famous grove. The area has been treated with prescribed burns for several decades, and officials hope this will protect them now. “There are reasons to be optimistic, of course,” she said, “but it’s impossible for us to know what’s going to happen.”

Associated Press contributed reporting

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