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Hundreds of Giant Sequoias Burn in Unprecedented California Drought, Wildfires

This story includes details about the impacts of climate change that may be difficult for some readers. If you are feeling overwhelmed by this crisis situation here is a list of resources on how to cope with fears and feelings about the scope and pace of the climate crisis.

In 2020, 10 to 14% of all giant sequoias across the tree’s natural range in California’s Sierra Nevada that were at least four feet in diameter were killed in the Castle Fire when a substantial proportion of all sequoia groves touched by the fire burned with unprecedented severity.

There are two fires currently burning which are destroying more of these iconic beasts of trees, the KNP Complex just north of the Castle Fire, and the Windy Fire which has spread into the south side of the Castle Fire, Wildfire Today reports. These three fires were primarily in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and the Sequoia National Forest.

According to a very preliminary estimate by the KNP Complex incident management team which was later removed from Facebook, “hundreds” of the iconic trees may have been killed in one day, October 4, in the Redwood Mountain Grove, the largest giant sequoia grove on Earth.

Under normal conditions, giant sequoia trees can live for more than 3,000 years, 38 times the life expectancy of a human in the United States. The multi-year drought and higher temperatures have led to extremely dry fuel moistures. That’s causing wildfires in California and other areas to burn with unusual intensity, making even some of the giant sequoias with bark up to a foot thick susceptible to wildfires burning under these conditions.

It will take a few years for the final death toll to be determined in the Castle Fire, but an estimate released June 25 found that areas which burned with high intensity, or 30% of the Castle Fire grove areas, killed many giant sequoias. Wildfire Today has a chart showing the mortality and survival numbers from the report for the Alder Creek Grove, showing 97.3 percent% in high fire severity areas, and 55.1% in moderate severity locations.

The early data for the 2020 Castle Fire translates to an estimated loss of 7,500 to 10,600 large sequoias, those with trunk diameters of four feet or more.

It could be many months or up to a year before a complete inventory determines the additional giant sequoia mortality from the fires in 2021, the Windy Fire and KNP Complex.

On October 12, the U.S. Forest Service reported that in the Windy Fire ,all but four mature giant sequoias were killed in one of the smaller groves, Starvation Creek, which according to earlier information had about 30 mature sequoias. Three other groves had less severe damage, and four still had not been evaluated and may not be until Spring or Summer of 2022. This information only applies to the Sequoia National Forest and Giant Sequoia National Monument, and does not include the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and the KNP Complex.

Probably millions of trees are killed every year in wildfires. Should we care that 10,000 or so extremely large ones were wiped out in 2020, with trunk diameters that exceed 20 feet, that can be more than 300 feet in height and live more than 3,000 years?

“These big trees are a link with our past,” writes Wildfire Today publisher Bill Gabbert. “They represent the fact that some living things can thrive for a very long time if no one comes along to totally screw things up.”

What Can Be Done?

Fix the climate? Gabbert says it won’t happen quickly. The reality is that even if all of the industrialized nations overnight adopted climate-friendly policies and practices, it could be decades before CO2 and other climate gases decreased to the point where the climate would begin to return to pre-1850 conditions.

Harden the giant sequoia groves? Reducing the ground and ladder fuels beneath the huge trees can make them more resistant to fire. The Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks have been treating many of the groves with prescribed fire since the 1960s. The Sequoia National Forest also has an active prescribed fire program. But the federal agencies have not had the funding or personnel to conduct thinning and prescribed fire projects in all the groves. And California air quality regulations and residents who complain about smoke from prescribed fires restrict the time windows in which the burns can take place.

Rethink the way limited firefighting resources are allocated to fires? In a September 23 public briefing, one of the operations section chiefs on these fires explained that he did not have enough hand crews and other resources to be able to work on all of the high priority areas on his fire at the same time, and was forced to shift them around based on fire activity. It sounded like Whack-A-Mole. This was due at least in part to the numerous ongoing fires, which were competing for the same resources. Other fires had similar shortages and unfilled resource orders.

Wildfire Today asked Rebecca Paterson, public affairs specialist for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, whether there would have been less giant sequoia mortality if all the resource requests or orders placed by the incident management team had been filled.

“It would be impossible for us to determine what could have been and we do not want to speculate,” she replied.

The Bottom Line

Since only approximately 100,000 of these mammoth trees are left that are larger than four feet in diameter, government employees allocating firefighting resources need to strongly consider their value to the U.S. and the world, and that some of them have been living for thousands of years. It is disheartening to see hundreds of them destroyed in a matter of hours, especially if that’s partly due to sending resources to protect structures that have not been hardened to FireSafe standards or constructed under reasonable county and city building codes.

The post calls on forest services to continue to manage the fuels beneath these big trees, and redouble the prescribed fire programs around them that began in the 1960s. The U.S. Congress and the White House need to increase fuel management funding for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Sequoia National Forest, and Giant Sequoia National Monument to make this possible.

Wildfire Today has more on how U.S. fire services are forced to allocate scarce resources during wildfire season. Gabbert’s takeaway comment: “As we get deeper into the bowels of climate change it is going to be increasingly difficult to maintain the status of all living things on the planet, except for cockroaches, Keith Richards, and Clint Eastwood.”