Wildfires Threaten the World’s Oldest Trees at Sequoia National Park

Wildfires have reached a grove of sequoias in California, US threatening some of the oldest trees on the planet.

Officials warned that hot, dry weather and stronger winds were contributing to “critical fire conditions” on the western side of Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada. Two lightning-sparked blazes merged in the area.

The flames reached Long Meadow Grove, home of the Trail of 100 Giant Sequoias, a national monument last week. They were about 1.5 kilometres from the famous Giant Forest, a grove of some 2,000 massive sequoias.

The fires forced the evacuation of the park last week, along with parts of Three Rivers, a foothill town of about 2,500 people. Park crews have been preparing the Giant Forest by removing fire fuel and wrapping the trees in a fire-resistant material.

The National Park Service said on Friday that fire had reached the westernmost tip of the Giant Forest, where it scorched a grouping of sequoias known as the “Four Guardsmen” that mark the entrance to the grove. Since then cool weather has allowed crews to keep the flames from encroaching further into the area.

The General Sherman tree, a giant sequoia in California’s Sequoia National Park and the largest tree by volume, is no stranger to fire: In its long life, the 275-foot-tall, 2,200-year-old tree has likely lived through well over 100 burns, which used to snake along the forest floor in the region every 15 years or so. The species even needs that fire to pop open its cones and release seeds that sprout its next generations.

But the fires making their way through the southern Sierra Nevada this September are not the same as burns in the past. Because of decades of fire suppression, ongoing climate- change-induced drought, and extreme heat, the fires themselves are burning hotter, higher in the forest’s canopy, and more intensely, putting to test even these most resilient and ancient of trees.

However, the General Sherman tree and its 8,000 or so sequoia neighbors have a major advantage: Their grove has been extensively treated with “prescribed fire” since the 1960s. Intentional, careful burns have helped create a healthy, resilient forest—which Christy Brigham, the chief of Resource Management and Science for Sequoia National Park, hopes can withstand a fire that could swing through.