LOS ANGELES: Fires triggered by lightning have killed thousands of giant sequoias this year, raising the death toll in two years to nearly a fifth of Earth’s largest trees, officials said Friday.
Fires in Sequoia National Park and surrounding national wildernesses, including named trees, razed more than a third of California’s trees and burned an estimated 2,261 and 3,637 sequences, the largest trees by volume. . Fires in the same region last year killed an unprecedented 7,500 to 10,400 of the 75,000 trees, which are only native to about 70 trees spread across the western side of the Sierra Nevada range.
Intense fires that burned enough and hot enough to kill so many giant sequoias – trees were once thought to be nearly fire-proof – put an exclamation point on the impact of climate change. The combination of a warming planet has created hot droughts and a century of fire suppression has smothered forests with thickets that have sounded the death knell for the trees of ancient civilizations.
“The grim reality is that we have seen yet another major loss within a limited population of these iconic trees that are irreparable over many lifetimes,” said Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park superintendent Clay Jordan. “As magnificent as these trees are, we really can’t take them lightly. Some action is necessary to make sure they are there for our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
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California has seen its biggest fires in five years, with the record for the most burnings set last year. The second largest land has been burnt so far this year.
Last year’s Castle and SQF Complex fires surprised officials by wiping out so many sequoias, this year taking extraordinary measures to save the largest and oldest trees.
General Sherman trees – the largest living thing on Earth – and other ancient trees that are the backdrop for photographs that often fail to capture the grandeur of the giant sequoias were wrapped in foil blankets.
A type of fire retardant gel, used as an absorbent in baby diapers, was dropped onto tree canopy which can be more than 200 feet (60 m) high. Water was poured into the twigs with sprinklers and the flammable material was driven away from the trees.
The measures spared the Giant Forest, the premier grove of ancient trees in the park, but the measures could not be deployed everywhere.
A major portion of Suwannee Grove in the park was gutted in a massive fire at the Marble Fork of the Kaweh River drainage. The Starvation Complex Grove in Sequoia National Forest was largely destroyed, based on estimates of how much it burned at high-severity.
In 2013, the park did climate modeling that predicted extreme fires would not threaten sequoias for the next 50 years, said Christy Brigham, head of resource management and science at the two parks. But it was at the beginning of that five-year drought that essentially broke the model.
In the midst of a drought in 2015, the park burned down giant sequoias for the first time. Two fires killed more massive sequoias in 2017, acting as a warning for what was to come.
“Then the Castle Fire happened and it was like, ‘Oh, my God,'” Brigham said. “We went by the warning sign to set the hair on fire. Losing 7,000 trees in one fire is madness.”
Absolute numbers of deaths from last year’s fires are still not available as crews in the forest were in the process of confirming how many trees were killed by lightning on September 9, the Windy Fire in Sequoia National Forest and the SQF in the park. Complex, Brigham said.
Not all news was bleak by estimation.
While the fire burned 27 trees and a large number of trees, a much lower-intensity fire that requires the sequoia to clear vegetation and heat will open the cones so they can spread their seeds.
However, areas where the fire was so hot and the seeds were killed may not be able to reproduce. The park is considering planting saplings for the first time to conserve the species.
“I’m not ready to give up on huge sequels,” Brigham said.
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