THREE RIVERS, Calif. (AP) – Crews monitored the weather this weekend as they battled California wildfires that destroyed groves of ancient redwoods as they tried to protect the world’s tallest tree.
The National Weather Service released a weather watch for critical fire conditions in Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada, where two lightning-triggered fires merged on Friday after recording their largest growth in a week. The blaze reached the western tip of the Giant Forest, where it burned down four redwoods known as the “Four Guards” that line the road in the grove of 2,000 redwoods.
The extent of fire damage to trees has not been determined.
Firefighters wrapped the base of the General Sherman tree, along with other trees in the Giant Forest, in fire-resistant aluminum of the type used in wildland firefighter emergency shelters and to protect historic buildings made of wood, said firefighter spokeswoman Katy Hooper.
The General Sherman tree is the world’s largest by volume, at 1,487 cubic meters (52,508 cubic feet), according to the National Park Service. It stands at 275 feet (84 meters) high and has a circumference of 103 feet (31 meters) at ground level.
The fires, collectively known as the KNP complex, burned 28 square miles (72 square kilometers) of forest land after making a major run on Friday. The low smoke that had choked the air and limited the growth of the blaze in recent days has risen, and the gusts have increased the activity of the fires, especially near the giant forest, Hooper said.
The flames chased away firefighters who were wrapping redwoods in foil and clearing vegetation on the forest floor that would intensify the fire near the trees, Hooper said. A team of experts was assessing conditions near the four guards on Saturday morning to determine whether firefighters could return safely and continue work, she said.
The fires forced the evacuation of the park this week and parts of Three Rivers, a hilltop community of about 2,500 people outside the park’s main entrance. The teams bulldozed a line between the fire and the community.
The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning until Sunday, saying gusts and lower humidity could create conditions for the rapid spread of wildfires.
However, firefighters weren’t expecting the kind of explosive wind-driven growth that in recent months has turned the Sierra Nevada fires into monsters that have devoured hundreds of homes.
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 thrive. But the extraordinary intensity of fires – fueled by climate change – can overwhelm trees.
“Once the fire burns inside the tree, it will lead to mortality,” said Jon Wallace, head of the operations section at the KNP complex.
Fires have already burned down in several groves containing trees up to 61 meters tall and 2,000 years old.
To the south, the Windy Fire has reached 50 square kilometers in the Tule River Indian Reservation and Giant Sequoias National Monument, where it burned the Peyrone Redwood Grove and threatened others.
The fire had also reached Long Meadow Grove, where two decades ago then President Clinton signed a proclamation establishing his 100 Giant Sequoias Trail as a national monument.
Firefighters have not yet been able to determine the extent of the damage to the groves, which are in remote and hard-to-reach areas. They said crews “were doing everything they could” to protect the trail by removing needles, leaves and other combustibles around the base of the trees.
Last year, the castle fire killed an estimated 7,500 to 10,600 large sequoias, according to the National Park Service. This represented about 10% to 14% of all redwoods in the world.
Current fires eat away dry wood, grass and brush.
In far northern California, early season rain was a welcome sign for firefighters battling a cluster of lightning-ignited wildfires in the Klamath National Forest in late July. Firefighters say this won’t put out the nearly 300 square mile (772 square kilometer) blaze, but will help teams achieve their goal.
Light rains are expected in the coastal area north of San Francisco over the weekend, but forecasters say conditions are expected to dry out by early next week, prompting a weather watch for the fires that could result power outages in Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties.
Historic drought related to climate change makes forest fires more difficult to fight. He killed millions of trees in California alone. Scientists say climate change has made the West much hotter and drier over the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and forest fires more frequent and destructive.
More than 7,000 California wildfires this year have damaged or destroyed more than 3,000 homes and other buildings and burned down more than 3,000 square miles (7,770 square kilometers) of land, according to the California Department of Forestry and Protection against fires.
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