Do we need a new paradigm for protecting iconic groves of remaining giant sequoias?

Can we prevent the annual loss of 10 percent of the giant sequoias

Firefighter on the Windy Fire burning giant sequoia tree
Firefighter on the Windy Fire applies water on a burning giant sequoia tree. Photo uploaded to InciWeb Oct. 11, 2021.

In 2020, 10 to 14 percent of all giant sequoias across the tree’s natural range in the Sierra Nevada that were at least four feet 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. These three fires were primarily in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and the Sequoia National Forest.

Three Fires, giant sequoia trees
Three fires in two years that killed giant sequoia trees. The green areas represent groves of giant sequoias.

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, which is 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 which is 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.

KNP Complex of fires. Giant sequoias
KNP Complex of fires. Giant sequoias in the Giant Forest, posted Sept. 19, 2021. InciWeb.

It will take a few years for the final death toll to be determined in the Castle Fire, but a report released June 25, 2021 estimating the mortality found that areas which burned with high intensity, which was 30 percent of the Castle Fire grove areas, killed many giant sequoias. Below are the mortality and survival numbers from the report for the Alder Creek Grove, which shows 97.3 percent mortality in high fire severity areas, and 55.1 percent in moderate severity locations.

Giant Sequoia mortality, Alder Creek Grove, Castle Fire, 2020. NPS.

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 US 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, the FS said, had less severe damage, and four still have 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. 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? 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 gasses would decrease 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 and personnel to conduct thinning and prescribed fire projects in all of the groves. And California air quality regulations and residents who complain about smoke from prescribed fires restrict the windows for when the burns can take place.

Rethink the way limited firefighting resources are allocated to going fires? In a September 23, 2021 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.

We asked Rebecca Paterson, a Public Affairs Specialist for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, if all of the resource requests or orders placed by the incident management team had been filled would there have been less giant sequoia mortality?

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

The role of Multi-Agency Coordinating Groups in allocating scarce firefighting resources

We also asked Ms Paterson, “Beyond placing resource requests and orders, was anything else done in an attempt to procure additional resources? Such as conversations by high-ranking NPS and USFS personnel with regional and national level entities or the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC)?”

Ms. Paterson: “The NPS representative to the National Multiagency Coordinating Group was aware of the competing resource needs across multiple geographic areas during Preparedness Level 4 and had daily contact with the Southern California Geographic Area as their NMAC liaison. NMAC makes resource allocations to geographic areas not specific incidents. The geographic areas then assign resources to incidents. We do not know what conversations may have occurred within the United States Forest Service.”

The Operating Plan for the NMAC sets the priorities for the group when allocating resources:

  1. Protection of human life.
  2. Maintain initial attack capability.
  3. Protect communities and community infrastructure, other property and improvements, and natural and cultural resources.

The 2021 Multi-Agency  Coordination System Procedure Guide for FIRESCOPE California uses a point system for establishing priorities for resource allocation among incidents. The maximum score is 60 for each fire. Only up to 5 points can be attributed to “Natural Resources (Threatened and Endangered Species Habitat, Watershed, Forest Health, Soils, Air Shed, etc.).” Up to 15 points can be assigned to structures and infrastructure.

It is probably safe to assume that when multiple large fires are burning most of the priorities for allocating scarce resources are decided by individuals with a history of on the ground firefighting. They may or may not have a bias toward assigning fire personnel to protect buildings, rather than fires where 3,000-year old trees 300 feet tall and 20 feet in diameter are being destroyed.

Today, the last giant sequoias on Earth live on land the size of Cleveland (48,000 acres) in about 73 groves scattered along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. The northernmost grow in Placer County in Tahoe National Forest, and the southernmost groves are in Giant Sequoia National Monument. They need a great amount of water and depend on the Sierra snowpack that accumulates over the winter months and soaks into the ground when it melts. Years of drought, declining snowpack, and increasingly intense wildfires are putting the species at greater risk.

If these massive plants were able to already live for thousands of years, it is irresponsible to not ramp up our efforts to protect them when human-caused climate change is suddenly leading to the destruction of large segments of their populations, 10 to 14 percent last year alone.

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.

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 nation 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 due in part to sending resources, instead, to in some cases protect structures that have not been hardened to FireSafe standards or constructed under reasonable county and city building codes.

We need to continue to manage the fuels beneath these big trees, and redouble the prescribed fire programs around them that began in the 1960s. Congress and the President need to increase the fuel management funding for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Sequoia National Forest, and Giant Sequoia National Monument to make this possible.

flames fire giant sequoia Windy
Flames spread around a large tree on the Windy Fire. Mike McMillan, BIA. Uploaded to InciWeb Sept. 22, 2021.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

19 thoughts on “Do we need a new paradigm for protecting iconic groves of remaining giant sequoias?”

  1. Yellowstone forests are NOT Sequoia groves. Yellowstone has rebounded with even better habitat for wildlife. The lost Sequoia groves will NEVER rebound. The Park Service protects all sorts of historic buildings, cultural sites and other types of places of importance to Americans. There is not much in this country more ancient and historic than Sequoias. Now, don’t come looking for me to shoot me, but, if I have my history right, when another National Monument, Grand Canyon, was threatened, Roosevelt got administration of it transferred from the Forest Service to the Park Service. I think it is time to hand over many National Monuments currently managed by the USFS or BLM to the NPS. These agencies have very different missions. The Sequoias in Yosemite did not burn. Last week there was a horrendous photo in our local newspaper showing 2 Forest Service people walking up from a completely burned Sequoia forest of tall black spires reaching toward the sky. How can Americans let this happen?

    1. In some resource situations it is best to preserve or prevent. But in other cases it is better to manage. It my understanding that most sequoias are lost because of the intrusion of “white woods (other conifers)” growing under them. These other conifers allow fire to reach up into the crowns of the sequoias, often with fatal results.
      Management in this case could thin or remove those other conifers.

      1. Park management includes all sorts of actions, including preserving and preventing. It also includes hiring enough people and securing enough equipment to carry out needed actions. I have managed people, property – including wildland property, budgets, training, long term planning, strategic planning, and goal setting , etc. for most of my career. Nothing good happens without good managers. Way back in the early 70s when I was working in Yosemite, they were conducting controlled burning of fuels around the Sequoias at the Mariposa Grove there. The park interpreters were doing a very good job of explaining why the little bit of smoke around us was necessary. The messaging to the public is also part of management.

  2. How much water is used to fight these ongoing fires? As human beings we have the ingenuity to not be victims of our environment but the God given commandment to “Have Dominion”.
    We are capable of irrigating our precious forests just like farmers do their commercial groves in the Central Valley.
    Water before the fact instead of WAITING until it is too late.
    Men, women and machines irrigating, cultivating, thinning, brushing, harvesting and replanting our precious wooden resources.
    Surveillance from space, fire fighting aircraft dispatching in our skies and heat sensors, cameras and personnel on the ground to apprehend would be arsonists and careless campers.

    1. Ah, but there lies the problem. What you are suggesting is adverse to the marching orders of the US National Park Service. They say that they try to allow natural processes to work without interference from man. If you go back a few years to Yellowstone N.P. you will find that the NPS boldly quit putting out fires in the park if they were naturally caused. At the time they made this decision there were ongoing fires and suppression efforts. Crews at the time were told to walk away from some of the fires. The point here is that we have the knowledge and ability to manage these stands for the protection of the giant trees. But that is against the present policy of the NPS. So public input/ outcry is needed to change that policy if it is to be changed. IMO, it is better to mange a stand to prevent such loss that to try to do an emergency fix to save it.

  3. This is an excellent article. Thank you for writing it, and more importantly for demanding answers from the government. As we all need to.

    “If these massive plants were able to already live for thousands of years, it is irresponsible to not ramp up our efforts to protect them . . .” Yes. This point must be drilled into the head of every NPS and USFS administrator. The status quo of resource allocation and fire management is not working.

    Today NPS issued a more detailed estimate for KNP that, taken together with data from past fires, projects that nearly 20 percent of the sequoias are likely to have been lost in just the past decade. This grotesque loss of ancient life is occurring under the nose of the richest, most highly educated administrative technocracy in the world. There are no more excuses.

  4. Thanks Bill. I now sit in my cabin a mile from the now contained ege of the KNP fire and five miles from Redwood Mountain Grove. I greatly appreciated the efforts that saved my cabin but as I told people a number of times I would have rather seen my cabin burn than redwood canyon. My cabin can be rebuilt in a couple of years but those trees will take thousands of years to replace. I also recall a number of times in the nightly briefings comments attesting to the prioritization of structures and communities and the lack of requested resources.

  5. At least now there are some large burn scars to work from with fires in the future (and help with Rx burning). Aggressive IA should be more successful and used to protect the remaining trees. Mitigation needs to continue also.

  6. Panic protection or planned protection ?
    If the dollars spent in the 7 or 8 days of panic protection had been spent on planned protection during the last 7 or 8 years we would still have some of the giant trees that were lost.
    However this planned protection may not have set will with some of the environmental groups we call on and need for support.

  7. It’s unfortunately entirely believable that we’ve failed to protect these trees from wildfire, along with the rest of the fire-adapted western forests. We’ve ignored the well-developed science of fire ecology. Our managers have been downright timid, weak, and self-serving in withholding prescribed burning, despite more than half-century of knowledge on how to protect and manage fire in our forests. Warnings of this have been dismissed, and they’ve buckled under the pressure from air quality restrictions, ignorant public and environmentalist opposition to management, and declining budgets. Look at the science literature on giant sequoia and fire from the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the decline of Park Service and Forest Service burning programs. AND READ THIS…..

    1. Great comments, George. The damage assessments coming in over the next weeks and months will tell the mortality tale, but it will be critically important to pressure managers to protect the remaining groves from wildfire. No excuses about a lack of funds, staff, surveys, or planning. Time has clearly run out, and there will be more than ample Congressional, Department, and public support to protect the remaining sequoias from further devastation if unit managers will just develop hazard reduction plans, a budget to implement them, and submit a request for the funds. It’s not a difficult process, and in fact has been been done before in Sequoia-Kings Canyon with good results in specific areas of the parks such as Giant Forest and Mineral King.

  8. 1. Protection of human life.

    That of all our fire personnel on these fires. A friend is on the KNP Complex fire, some of the sequoia tops have fallen to the ground, fortunately not killing anyone when they hit the ground.

    Now that we no longer have a 6-mo fire season, but year-round season depending where you live in the country, a year-round fully staffed, paid as structural firefighters are, wildland fire fighting force needs to be seriously addressed. This must be taken seriously by all, now, not just by western governors and legislators, but all of congress. Fires occur everywhere, in every state, they’re just not reported as much as western states are. Friends in Idaho say the N Fork of the Salmon River is at a historic low, 35% of capacity, 15-18 ft below normal.

  9. Your article contains so many excellent points that it would require a longer op-ed to address them. The answer to your question is yes. For over 50 years, catastrophic wildfires in sequoia groves have been predicted, so this is no surprise, other than perhaps the acceleration in fire behavior provided by climate change. Much excellent prescribed fire work has been done in Giant Forest and Grant Grove over the years to the present, and in other areas as well, which has helped contain the current and past wildfires. The real question is why many of the groves remain to this day either partially or completely untreated after 50 years of warning, and so are now being chewed up by wildfires. We can say, as usual, that a new paradigm requires more staffing and funding to maintain and sustain large fuel treatment areas, but most of all it requires a greater sense of urgency to do the work. The usual suspects that are typically pointed to as barriers to this work, such as air quality permits and cultural resource and sensitive species surveys, and even the availability of fire personnel to do the projects, certainly pale as barriers when the wildfire sends choking smoke into communities, cultural resources are destroyed, sensitive habitat is lost, and the wildfire sucks in fire resources to deal with a problem that has been decades in the making. The paradigm answer certainly requires the new availability of resources dedicated to do the planning and execution of the fuels work, on a landscape scale, on sustained timetable, and to not rely heavily on fire staff who are already dealing with an ever escalating, months-long, and in a sense deteriorating, wildfire situation.

  10. While working as a silviculturalist on the Sierra N.F. some 40+ years ago, our district proposed to remove a number of “white woods” from under the McKinley Grove sequoias. What we saw was a proactive approach to protect the grove from loss due to fire and give us the potential for disturbing the soil to promote new sequoia seedlings. It appeared at the time that the resounding NO that we got from upper management (Supervisor’s Office) was about the same as we get today from folks that are dead set against any logging.
    So I will introduce that ugly phrase into the narrative– Stand Management. You can not Preserve a stand as a natural feature. It is constantly changing and only Mother Nature is the one making the changes. Those changes most often do not coincide with man’s ideas of what they want. But our good Lord did give us the ability to study and understand what is happening and Manage things for an intended purpose. So yes we do need to introduce a paradigm of management if we want to “Preserve” a feature.
    Calling in more firefighters after the fire has started in a sequoia grove is years late for the actions that should have been done years before he fire started.

  11. Many of our sequoias were around before the Roman Empire. How can we let any of them be lost for the lack of resources? This seems criminal to me. And those criminals are in DC. A few years ago many of us watched our TVs as the Cathedral of Notre Dame burned as thousands of Parisians as well as tourists stood in the streets and cried. I was lucky to have visited it several times and I cried in front of my TV. I have been crying for the sequoias, too. They are the Cathedrals of our American Mountains.

  12. 1. Good article Bill . It’s about time someone is calling attention to the Sequoia disaster .
    2. Paterson did not fully answer the questions ,put to her. [evasive]
    3. We need more resources, and better management of these fires!

  13. Hi Bill,

    You have already described what had been done at Lake Tahoe which were observed to decrease the lost of residences there. But the neglect caused by Smokey the Bear has made this a very large and costly effort. But the cost is no excuse to not try to reverse the problem which exists in localized areas.

    Have a good day, Jerry


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