A growing wildfire, sparked by lightning and spread through the dense, dry, forested Sierra Nevada, is posing dangers to the ancient sequoia trees in their namesake national park.
The Paradise fire and the Colony fire, which have burned together to become the KNP Complex fire, surged through more than 3,000 acres of steep and difficult-to-reach terrain since igniting on 9 September in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, with 0% containment by Tuesday morning.
Fueled by dried brush and desiccated ponderosa pine tinder – dead trees that had already succumbed to dire drought conditions and bug-infestations – the flames are burning so intensely that park officials fear that the world’s largest trees could be in peril.
“There is a threat to the groves. It is a serious threat,” said Mark Ruggiero, the Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks fire information officer.
Sequoias, which stretch hundreds of feet into the sky and have adapted to thrive in fire, are incredibly resilient. The giant trees have evolved to withstand the heat, with bark that protects them and seed-carrying cones that rely on flames to open. Fires are usually considered healthy for the forests, helping to clear the undergrowth to create space for seedlings.
But blazes burning hotter and with increasing intensity have posed new threats for the trees that have survived there for thousands of years. Last year, more than 10% were lost to flames.
“I cannot overemphasize how mind-blowing this is for all of us,” said Christy Brigham, the chief of resources management and science at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, last year of the grim discovery. “These trees have lived for thousands of years. They’ve survived dozens of wildfires already.”
Scientists with the National Park Service (NPS) called the last severe drought between 2012 and 2016, which was coupled with higher temperatures, a “tipping point for giant sequoias and other Sierra Nevada mixed-conifer forests”.
Between 2015 and 2020, two-thirds of the area where the giant sequoia groves grow burned, according to the NPS, while only a quarter of that space burned during the century before. The Castle fire alone was responsible for killing up to 10,600 large sequoias – 42% of the trees that stood in its path.
Ruggiero noted that the KNP Complex is burning with the same intensity and through similar a landscape as the Castle fire, which erupted in August 2020, torched 175,000 acres of the park, before it was finally put out in December.
Climate change, which has caused the hotter and drier conditions, also set the stage for extreme blazes that have torn across the American west in recent years. Drought-stricken California, where close to 90% of the state is mired in the “extreme drought” category according to the US Drought Monitor, has already seen record-breaking blazes this year with months of fire season still ahead. There are 13 large wildfires currently burning in the state, including the Dixie fire and the Caldor fire, two destructive infernos also burning through the Sierra Nevada.
Similar to those big blazes, crews battling this fire have struggled to access the steep and rugged terrain, limiting containment efforts. Smoke has also inhibited aircraft from attacking the fire from above until visibility improves, which is expected Tuesday afternoon. A management team has been deployed to the fire, Ruggiero said, and is expected to arrive on Tuesday.
The park was also in the process of fully evacuating after the blaze reached a nearby “management action point”, a pre-planned position that Ruggiero said dictated it was time to get all non-essential employees out of the park.
“Because of the intensity of how fires are now burning in this day and age, this is the new way of living with fire,” he said. “This is serious business,” he added. “And it is a huge loss.”