California firefighters scramble to protect sequoia groves

Three Rivers, Sept. 20 (BUS): Flames reached a grove of sequoia trees in California as firefighters struggled to prevent another grove, where the base of the world’s largest tree was wrapped in protective paper.

Fire officials warned Sunday that hot, dry weather and strong winds were contributing to “critical fire conditions” in the KNP compound area, two fires ignited by lightning merger on the western side of Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada.

The fire has reached Long Meadow Grove, where the Trail of 100 Giant Sequoias is a National Monument. Fire officials have not yet been able to quantify the amount of damage to orchards in remote and hard-to-reach areas. Still, raging flames were burning the trunk, with the forest floor blazing below, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning through Sunday, saying storms and low humidity could create conditions for wildfires to spread quickly.

Fires forced the evacuation of the park last week, along with parts of Three Rivers, a mountainside town of about 2,500 people. Firefighters using bulldozers have widened the line between the fire and the community, firefighter spokeswoman Rebecca Patterson said Sunday.

More than 34 square miles (88 square kilometers) of forest land has been blackened.

The National Park Service said Friday that the fire has reached the far western edge of the giant forest, burning a group of sequoias known as the “Four Sentinels” that mark the entrance to the grove of 2,000 sequoias.

Since then, crews have been able to prevent the flames from encroaching on the area.

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“The ocean of fire wraps around the giant forest at this point,” Patterson said.

Firefighters clamped the base of the General Sherman tree, along with other trees in the giant forest, in a type of aluminum that can withstand high heat.

The General Sherman tree is the world’s largest by volume, at 52,508 cubic feet (1,487 cubic metres), according to the National Park Service. It has a height of 275 feet (84 m) and a circumference of 103 feet (31 m) at ground level.

Firefighters who were wrapping the sequoia base in foil, leaves and needles from the forest floor around the trees had to flee the danger, fire spokeswoman Katie Hooper said Saturday. She said they returned when conditions improved to continue working and start a strategic fire along the Generals Highway to protect the giant forest grove.

Giant sequoias are adaptable to fire, which can help them thrive by releasing seeds from their cones and creating spaces that allow small sequoias to grow. But the extraordinary intensity of the fires – fueled by climate change – could overwhelm the trees.

“Once the tree catches fire, it will lead to death,” said John Wallace, head of operations at KNP Complex.

The fires have already broken out in several groves containing trees up to 200 feet (61 m) in height and 2,000 years old.

To the south, the Windy Fire has grown to 28 square miles (72 square kilometers) on the Tully River Indian Reserve and at the Giant Sequoia National Monument, where it burned in a Peroni grove of sequoias and threatens others.

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Historic droughts linked to climate change are making bushfires even more difficult to fight. It has killed millions of trees in California alone. Scientists say climate change has made the West warmer and drier over the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and increase the frequency and destruction of wildfires.

More than 7,000 wildfires in California this year have damaged or destroyed more than 3,000 homes and other buildings and set fire to more than 3,000 square miles (7,770 square kilometers) of land, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

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