As firefighters continue battling wildfires burning in California’s rugged Sierra Nevadas, they have now begun to take extra measures to protect gigantic old-growth sequoias in Sequoia National Park and the neighboring Sequoia National Forest.
“The fire continues to grow in all directions,” the National Park Service explains. “Crews are preparing the Giant Forest before the fire reaches that area, by removing fuel and applying structure wrap on some of the iconic monarch sequoias that characterize the most famous area of Sequoia National Park.”
A Growing Threat
The fire threatening Sequoia National Park and the national forest is known as the KNP Complex Fire, which actually is comprised of two fires: the Colony and Paradise fires. The fires, which were started last Friday by lightning, have now burned more than 9,365 acres.
Earlier this week, the National Park Service explained that although firefighters are “aggressively attacking” the fires to help suppress them, the fires do have the potential to damage Sequoia National Park’s infrastructure and resources.
With that threat in mind, park officials announced that all facilities and services in Sequoia National Park — including campgrounds, visitor centers, and park stores — are closed “until the fire threat is diminished.” There are other closures in the park as well.
As the fires continue to burn, the U.S. Forest Service has now closed neighboring Sequoia National Forest until December 31. The forest covers more than 1.1 million acres spread across three counties in southern California.
Forest Supervisor Teresa Benson says the KNP Complex Fire is actively burning toward the Hume Lake Ranger District, which has created a very dangerous situation for the public.
“Roads and trail systems within the closure area are narrow and hazardous, with few routes for evacuation,” Benson explains. “Roads are also being used for staging heavy equipment, such as dozers and other suppression equipment, and fire suppression activities make the area unsafe for the public.”
In the meantime (for now, anyway), nearby Kings Canyon National Park remains open. However, officials do note that increasing smoke levels could have an impact on air quality.
As the wildfires continue burning, firefighters were seen wrapping fire-resistant blankets around the base of sequoias in Sequoia National Park’s Giant Forest, a Washington Post article reports. One of those trees is the General Sherman Tree, which is 275 feet tall and more than 36 feet in diameter at the base, making it the world’s largest tree by volume.
Other sequoias, the Giant Forest Museum, and other buildings were also wrapped to offer a level of protection against the possibility of intense heat from the fire’s flames.
The fire-resistant, aluminum wrapping can withstand intense heat for short periods, fire spokeswoman Rebecca Paterson says in an ABC News article. The material has been used by the National Park Service and Forest Service for several years to protect structures from flames, she continued.
Firefighters have also begun using prescribed burns to burn off undergrowth so if the fire does reach that area, there is a low amount of fuel. That way, if the fire does burn through the area, it will do so at a lower intensity and create less damage.
“They’re trying to remove the fuels that make the fire burn so intensely,” Maureen Kennedy, a professor of wildfire ecology at the University of Washington, says in an Associated Press article. “Of course, their goal there is to better contain and control the fire and protect the more valuable resources.”
Sequoias have evolved remarkably well so they can be fire resistant. For one thing, their thick bark insulates the trees from heat, and because they are so tall, their branches are high enough to avoid most fires’ flames. Secondly, a fire’s heat is needed to release seeds from the trees’ cones. Finally, smaller fires clear away undergrowth, giving seedlings space to take root.
However, in recent years, the rate and intensity of wildfires have killed large numbers of sequoias. Last year, for example, the Castle Fire, which was started by lightning on August 19, burned in Sequoia National Forest and later burned into Sequoia National Park.
According to preliminary estimates by the National Park Service, the 2020 Castle Fire killed between 31 and 42 percent of large sequoias within the Castle Fire’s footprint — or 10 to 14 percent of all large sequoias across the Sierra Nevada. Park Service officials believe that number correlates to an estimated loss of 7,500 to 10,600 large sequoias.
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