Wildfires caused by lightning killed thousands of giant sequoias this year, adding to a staggering two-year death toll that makes up nearly a fifth of the largest trees on Earth, authorities said Friday.
Fires in Sequoia National Park and the surrounding national forest that is also named after the trees destroyed more than a third of the groves in California and set an estimated 2,261 to 3,637 redwoods ablaze. Fires in the same area last year killed an unprecedented 7,500 to 10,400 of the 75,000 trees.
Redwoods are the largest trees by volume and are native to only about 70 groves scattered along the western side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. They were once considered almost fireproof. The fact that the intense fires burned hot enough to kill so many giants puts an exclamation point on the impact of the climate crisis.
“The sad reality is that we have seen another great loss within a finite population of these iconic trees that are irreplaceable in many lifetimes,” said Clay Jordan, superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. “As spectacular as these trees are, we really can’t take them for granted. To make sure they are there for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, some steps need to be taken. “
The combination of a warming planet that has created hotter droughts and a century of firefighting that smothered forests with thick brush has fueled fires that have given the graceful touch to trees dating back to ancient civilizations.
California has seen its largest fires in the past five years, and last year it set a record for most of the area burned. So far, the second largest amount of land has been burned this year.
After last year’s SQF complex and castle fires surprised officials by removing so many redwoods, extraordinary steps were taken this year to save the largest and oldest trees.
The General Sherman tree, the largest living thing on Earth, and other ancient trees were wrapped in an aluminum blanket. A type of fire retardant gel, similar to that used as an absorbent in baby diapers, was dropped onto the tops of trees that can exceed 200 feet (60 meters) in height. Sprinklers thinned the logs and flammable matter was raked from the trees.
The measures saved the Giant Forest, the main grove of ancient trees in the park, but the measures could not be implemented everywhere.
Most of the Suwanee grove in the park burned in an extreme fire in the Marble Fork of the Kaweah River drainage. The grove of the Famine Complex in the Sequoia National Forest was largely destroyed, according to estimates of how severely burned.
In 2013, the park had run climate models that predicted extreme fires would not endanger the redwoods for another 50 years, said Christy Brigham, chief science and resource management officer at the two parks. But that was at the beginning of what became a severe five-year drought that essentially broke the pattern.
Amid the 2015 drought, the park saw giant redwoods burn for the first time. Two fires in 2017 killed more giant sequoias, serving as a warning for what was to come. “Then the Castle fire happened and it was like, ‘Oh my gosh,'” Brigham said. “We went from the warning sign to the burning hairs. Losing 7,000 trees in a fire is crazy. “
A full tally of mortality from last year’s fire is not yet available because crews in the forest were in the process of confirming how many trees died when lightning struck on September 9, sparking the Windy Fire in the Sequoia National Forest. and the SQF Complex in the park. Brigham said.
Not all the news of the estimates was grim.
While the fire burned in 27 groves and a large number of trees were incinerated, a large amount of low-intensity fire that redwoods need to thrive removed vegetation and the heat will open the cones so they can spread their seeds.
However, it is possible that areas where the fire burned so brightly that the seeds died may not be able to regenerate. For the first time, the park is considering planting seedlings to preserve the species.
“I’m not ready to give up on the giant sequoias,” Brigham said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism