Monday, January 24

California Wildfires Closes Sequoia National Park, Prompts Evacuations | California


A complex of lightning-sparked wildfires burning in California’s Sierra Nevada has grown in size, prompting evacuations and the closure of Sequoia National Park, where the fire burns near the park’s namesake trees.

The KNP complex fire, comprised of the Paradise and Colony fires, gripped dense mountainous vegetation on September 9. By Wednesday morning, the fire had burned more than 7,000 acres.

Mandatory evacuations are in effect throughout Sequoia National Park and the Three Rivers area, and the fire continues to threaten the ancient groves of giant trees growing on the western slope of the range.

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

All facilities in Sequoia have been closed and wild trail start permits have been canceled. Kings Canyon National Park, north of Sequoia, remained open.

A sign announces the closure of Sequoia National Park, where the KNP complex fires are burning.
A sign announces the closure of Sequoia National Park, where the KNP complex fires are burning. Photograph: Noah Berger / AP

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

Fueled by higher temperatures and extreme drought conditions, more than 7,400 wildfires have burned in California this year, burning more than 2.2 million acres. The KNP complex is one of 12 large active fires burning across the state. Firefighters have progressed through two of the most devastating conflagrations, contesting the state’s largest single fire in history, the Dixie fire, up to 75% containment after it burned nearly 960,500 acres in the northern Sierra and the region. south of Cascades. Near Lake Tahoe, containment of the Caldor fire of more than 219,260 acres increased to 70% Wednesday.

Officials at the KNP complex said firefighting resources were limited due to the number of fires burning in the west, but they were hopeful crews would do everything they could to protect the giant redwoods that give the park its name.

Flames burn a mile from 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 estimate has been alive for more than 2,300 years.

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

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

The KNP complex fire is burning a mile from the iconic General Sherman tree, shown here in 2015.
The KNP complex fire is burning 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 died when the castle fire swept through the region last year, about 42% of the giant trees that got in their way. It was an alarming discovery that highlighted another devastating effect of climate change on landscapes and ecosystems.

“Redwoods are trees that adapt to fire,” said Mark Ruggiero, fire information officer for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. “It’s important to have fire for the redwoods to thrive, but when we have fires this intense, even the redwoods can’t cope.”

There is still hope. Giant sequoias are closely related to the towering, slender redwoods that grow along California’s northern coast and have the same relationship to fire. They are similarly being tested by the largest fires, but a year after the CZU Complex fire burned 97% of the Big Basin Redwoods State Park on the shoreline between San Francisco and Monterey Bay, there are promising signs of Renaissance. Green shoots grow from the blackened trunks and many of the park’s most treasured trees survived.

As the flames approached the giant forest in Sequoia National Park, Rebecca Paterson, the fire information officer for the KNP complex, said she felt confident in the resistance of the famous grove. The area has been treated with prescribed burning for several decades, and officials hope they will now protect them. “There are reasons for optimism, of course,” he said, “but it is impossible for us to know what is going to happen.”

Associated Press contributed reporting


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