A growing wildfire, triggered by lightning and spreading through the dense, dry, forested Sierra Nevada, endangers the ancient sequoias of their namesake national park.
The Paradise Fire and Colony Fire, which burned together to become the KNP Complex Fire, has swept over 3,000 acres of steep, hard-to-reach terrain since they ignited on September 9 in the parks National Sequoia and Kings Canyon, with 0% containment by Tuesday morning.
Fueled by dried brush and parched ponderosa pine tinder – dead trees that had previously succumbed to extreme drought conditions and insect infestations – the flames are burning so intensely that park officials fear the most great trees of the world are in jeopardy.
“There is a threat to the groves. It’s a serious threat, ”said Mark Ruggiero, Fire Information Officer for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
Redwoods, which stretch hundreds of feet in the sky and have adapted to thrive in fire, are incredibly hardy. Giant trees have evolved to withstand heat, with bark that protects them and seed-bearing cones that depend on the flames to open. Fires are generally considered healthy for forests, helping to clear the undergrowth to create space for seedlings.
But the burning flames and with increasing intensity posed new threats to the trees that have survived them for thousands of years. Last year, more than 10% were destroyed by the flames.
“I can’t stress enough how mind-blowing this is for all of us,” said Christy Brigham, head of resource management and science at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, last year of the disaster. discovery. “These trees have lived for thousands of years. They have already survived dozens of forest fires.
Scientists from the National Park Service (NPS) called the last severe drought between 2012 and 2016, coupled with higher temperatures, a “tipping point for the giant sequoias and other mixed coniferous forests of the Sierra Nevada.”
Between 2015 and 2020, two-thirds of the area where giant redwood groves grow burned down, according to the NPS, while only a quarter of that area burned in the previous century. The castle fire alone killed up to 10,600 large sequoias, or 42% of the trees in its path.
Ruggiero noted that the KNP complex is burning with the same intensity and across a landscape similar to the castle fire, which erupted in August 2020, set 175,000 acres of the park ablaze, before it was finally extinguished in December.
Climate change, which has caused warmer and drier conditions, has also paved the way for the extreme fires that have ravaged the American West in recent years. Drought-stricken California, where nearly 90% of the state is mired in the “extreme drought” category according to the US Drought Monitor, has already seen record fires this year with months of fire season yet to come. There are 13 major wildfires currently burning in the state, including the Dixie Fire and the Caldor Fire, two destructive hells that are also burning across the Sierra Nevada.
Similar to those large fires, the teams fighting this blaze struggled to access the steep and rugged terrain, limiting containment efforts. Smoke also prevented planes from attacking the blaze from above until visibility improved, which is expected Tuesday afternoon. A management team has been deployed to the fire, Ruggiero said, and is expected to arrive on Tuesday.
The park was also in the process of fully evacuating after the fire reached a nearby “management action point”, a pre-planned position which Ruggiero said dictated it was time to remove all employees. non-essentials of the park.
“Because of the intensity of how fires burn these days, it’s the new way to live with fire,” he said. “This is serious business,” he added. “And that’s a huge loss.”