Devastating fires over the last three years in California have endangered the limited number of giant sequoias to the point where scientists are cloning the huge trees and planting them farther north where climate change may produce suitable growing conditions.
Preliminary surveys found that in a two year period, 2020 and 2021, almost 20 percent of all giant sequoias in their natural range over four feet in diameter were killed by fire (and neglect) or will die in the next few years. In 2020, 10 to 14 percent of the entire Sierra Nevada population of giant sequoia trees over 4 feet in diameter were killed in the Castle Fire. Early estimates after two fires the following year, the KNP Complex and the Windy Fire, 2,261 to 3,637 sequoias over four feet in diameter were killed or will die within the next three to five years.
At this rate, with this climate, we could lose the rest of these massive trees in just a few years.
A team of expert horticulturists is using cloning technology to replant redwoods and sequoias and save their genetic material.
As expected, when the winds increased Saturday afternoon the activity on the east side of the Mosquito Fire picked up. Wind gusts measured at the Foresthill weather station began exceeding 15 mph at 11 a.m. and peaked at 24 mph at 1:30 p.m. The relative humidity was in the 40s until rising into the 50s at 6 p.m., after which the spread of the fire decreased.
The forecast calls for the RH Saturday night to reach 87 percent while the winds slow to 7 mph out of the south. The winds will increase Sunday out of the south to 15 mph with gusts of 21 to 25 mph. The chance of rain will rise throughout the day Sunday, reaching 66 percent by sunset. Precipitation could continue off and on through Wednesday, possibly exceeding an inch.
The fuels, the vegetation, are extremely dry after years of drought. The rain event will not end the fire season in this part of the state, but assuming the precipitation arrives as expected the spread of the Mosquito Fire should slow to a crawl for several days, at least.
The fire was mapped at 3:58 p.m. Saturday at 73,381 acres.
Firefighters continue to make good progress holding the fire along the Eleven Pines Road and other control lines along the eastern flank. Crews were able to successfully engage in strategic firing operations Saturday to continue building a buffer along these control lines. Saturday night firefighters will patrol, mop up, and secure established control and containment lines in an effort to ensure the fire remains within these existing lines while it is being tested by this wind event.
Placer County is maintaining an evacuation map. Approximately 11,277 people are currently under evacuation orders.
Fire officials said 78 structures have been destroyed. On Saturday there were 3,729 personnel assigned to the fire.
Firefighters are making good progress on the south, west, and north sides of the Mosquito Fire near Foresthill, California.
On the northeast side, the firing operation along Chicken Hawk, Old Foresthill, and Deadwood Roads is complete and is being mopped up. This will reduce the chance of the fire spreading further to the west and northwest.
Below Todd Valley on the west side, another firing operation is tying in that corner of the fire with the Middle Fork American River. Much of the south side from Volcanoville past Quintette is looking fairly secure.
What is left is the east side which this week, pushed by the prevailing winds out of the southwest, has been moving east about a half mile each day. Firefighters are prepping multiple north-south roads out ahead to the east which could serve as indirect firelines when complete.
Two miles east of the fire is the northernmost grove of Giant Sequoias (see map above), trees that can live for 3,000 years during normal climate conditions or if managed and protected appropriately. On Thursday firefighters completed a four-acre burn in this small grove. This was to reduce the fuel so that when the main fire comes through hopefully these huge trees will be protected.
The weather on Friday will be similar to what we have seen for several days, moderate relative humidity and wind. That will change Saturday as a system comes in that starts in the afternoon with strong southwest winds gusting to 23 mph, but the RH will still be moderate, in the upper 30s. These winds could throw out burning embers far ahead of the fire, starting spot fires that could increase the rate of spread significantly. Saturday night the wind will come out of the south at 14 mph and that is when the chances for rain begin. By Sunday morning the chances increase to 50 percent and through Monday will vary, but could be as high as 80 percent. The NWS forecast predicts the amount of precipitation through Tuesday could exceed one inch.
The U.S. Forest Service distributed information yesterday saying there are areas still burning in giant sequoia groves after wildfires that occurred in the Castle and Windy Fires of 2020 and 2021.
From the Sequoia National Forest, July 23, 2022:
Three fires were discovered this week, still smoldering inside the 2020 Castle and 2021 Windy Fires. Firefighters from Sequoia National Forest quickly reached two, and the third could not be reached safely due to the dense stand of fire-killed trees surrounding it.
The 1-acre Cougar Fire was found burning in the Red Hill Giant Sequoia Grove near the Tule River Indian Reservation boundary. Less than a half mile away, the ¼-acre Crawford Fire was reported by fire personnel responding to the Cougar Fire. Both were caused by a smoldering giant sequoia tree leftover from last summer’s Windy Fire.
Fireline was constructed by hand to stop each fire from spreading further. Heavy material: treetops, limbs, and trunks of previous fallen trees continue to smolder underneath these still-standing sequoia trees, weakened by the fire burning inside them. Fire personnel will continue to mop up and extinguish what they can without jeopardizing their safety by having to work under a burning giant sequoia tree. Neither the Cougar nor Crawford Fires pose an immediate risk to nearby communities.
On Thursday, a third fire was reported southeast of Camp Nelson in the Belknap Giant Sequoia Grove. Helicopter personnel located this fire deep inside the burned area of the 2020 Castle Fire. Due to its remote location, numerous standing hazard trees endangering fire personnel, and minimal chance of escape, this fire will be monitored from a distance and by air.
There have been several instances of smoldering trees, most of them large diameter giant sequoias, observed and reported in both the Castle and Windy Fire burned areas. These are likely to continue as dry conditions persist. Firefighter safety is a priority when determining how best to extinguish these types of fires. They may have to be monitored until the trees fall on their own and can be managed safely on the ground.
Kyle Dickman has written a must-read article for Outside magazine about how the largest trees on Earth which can live for more than 3,000 years, are being increasingly affected in recent years by fire. It was published this week at the magazine and covers how management of the giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park and other areas in the Sierras has affected the vulnerability of the huge mature specimens in the groves.
The article frequently mentions Mr. Dickman’s brother, Garrett, who is the Forest Ecologist at Yosemite and has been heavily involved in managing and attempting to save the giant sequoias. The piece is extremely well written. You can read the entire article at Outside.
Below are a few excerpts:
“What nature’s doing isn’t natural,” [said Joe Suarez, the Arrowhead Hotshots superintendent]
Garrett [Dickman] and Christy Brigham, the director of science at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, are standing in front of an outhouse that firefighters saved from the Castle Fire, sitting in the patchy shade of a 2,000-year-old dead tree that they did not. Firefighters protect life and property before all else—even holes to shit in, so long as they have walls around them. Listening to the two compare notes on their jobs makes clear that the fate of giant sequoias is almost entirely in the hands of a few middle managers, working at a few select parks, who navigate arcane environmental laws and a financing system cobbled together with public grants. If sequoia death is a product of American gridlock, sequoia survival will happen because of the tenacity of a few individuals.
The current drought is more intense than any experienced in California in 1,200 years.
“These next couple of years could be bad in ways we haven’t experienced yet,” Garrett says. The Park Service knows what’s coming. After 60 years trying to walk backward by managing their lands to be what conservationist Starker Leopold, who devised the agency’s guiding philosophy from the late 1960s until 2021, called “vignettes of primitive America,” the Park Service has changed course to officially recognize that park managers must intervene in ways considered antithetical to their mission two years earlier. The new policy asks the public to open its mind to everything from mechanical thinning to very limited logging. “We saw how it goes when you don’t do anything,” Christy says. “It goes terribly. It goes thousands of 2,000 year old trees burned up in an instant.”
“We don’t get to have nice things anymore,” Garrett says.”
“The Clean Water Act. The National Environmental Policy Act. The National Historic Preservation Act. The Threatened and Endangered Species Act. Fantastic laws all of them,” Christy says. “But they were built at a time when the main threat was people doing bad things—logging, mining. Now the main threat is inaction. Bureaucracy is slow. Wildfire is fast. And bureaucracy needs to get a hell of a lot faster if we want to persist and not lose everything we’ve got left.”
Threatens 3,000-year-old giant sequoia trees in Yosemite National Park
Updated 5:00 p.m. PDT July 13, 2022
The Washburn fire in Yosemite National Park has kicked up Wednesday afternoon like it has every afternoon since it started July 7.
Helicopters have been assisting ground-based firefighters on the east side of the fire today, but due to spot fires and increased fire activity in the afternoon they called in two large and one very large air tanker to slow the spread.
A community meeting about the fire will be streamed live on Facebook at 7 p.m PDT on July 14.
The FIRIS aircraft shot video of the fire earlier today:
Most of the fire activity on the Washburn Fire over the last 24 hours has been on the east side where it has burned out of Yosemite National Park and into the Sierra National Forest. So far crews have been able to suppress all of the spot fires on the north side that crossed the South Fork of the Merced River and ignited the five-year-old vegetation in the footprint of the 2017 South Fork Fire.
The incident management team is evaluating the feasibility of building a fireline on the east side between Raymond Mountain and the river in order to stop the movement beyond that point.
On a flight at 10:45 p.m. an infrared line-scanning aircraft mapped the fire. An infrared analyst interpreted the data and found that it had burned 3,772 acres.
Below, another aircraft using a different system, FIRIS, reported it was 3,843 acres at 10:06 p.m. July 12. Their infrared video, looking east, is below.
Fire crews are making progress on the Washburn Fire in Yosemite National Park — the south and west sides are starting to look more secure. At 12:53 p.m. Tuesday it was mapped at 3,516 acres.
Approximately 340 acres of the blaze is within the Mariposa grove of giant sequoias, some of which are close to 3,000 years old. The more than 500 mature giant sequoias are adjacent to heavy fuels and have so far avoided serious damage from the fire, the National Park Service reported Tuesday.
On Monday, firefighters suppressed about 15 spot fires on the west side of the fire that were across Highway 41. They now have a fire line around the Wawona community and have structure defense equipment in place.
On the northeast side the line is complete from the highway down to the South Fork of the Merced River and around the community. On the north side the fire has reached the river in most places and crews are putting out spot fires as they occur across the river in the fire scar from the 2017 South Fork Fire.
The east side continues to spread. Firefighters assisted by air tankers have constructed fire line along the ridge east of Wawona Point and so far that is holding. About a mile to the east hotshot crews are evaluating the feasibility of building a fireline between Raymond Mountain and the river in order to arrest the movement beyond that point.
Yosemite Superintendent Cicely Muldoon said the fire was caused by humans.
“As you all know there was no lightning on that day so it is a human start,” Muldoon said Monday night. “It’s under investigation. That’s all I can say about that right now. We’re looking at that really hard.”
The weather for this week will continue to be warm and dry due to a strengthening high pressure system. Winds should remain light to moderate and mostly terrain driven. Temperatures will reach the low-90s and relative humidity will be in the 20-30 percent range.
It has burned into a grove of giant sequoia trees, some of which are 3,000 years old
Updated 5:08 p.m. PDT July 11, 2022
Late Monday afternoon activity on the Washburn Fire increased substantially. There have been reports of at least one spot fire on the north side of the South Fork of the Merced River. There were also reports of spot fires across highway 41 on the west or northwest side of the fire.
Satellite heat detections at 2:36 p.m. Monday showed numerous heat sources east of the earlier perimeter of the fire across the park boundary on the Sierra National Forest, and on the northwest side of the fire between Highway 41 and the river.
In mid-afternoon the FIRIS aircraft mapped the fire at 2,720 acres.
Updated 7:11 a.m. PDT July 11, 2022
The Washburn Fire in Yosemite National Park in California continued to spread west, north, and east on Sunday. On Saturday and Sunday the size increased by 749 acres, bringing the total to 2,340 acres according to a mapping flight Sunday at 10 p.m.
Approximately 340 acres of the fire are within the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. While protective foil-based structure wrap is not being used on the sequoias themselves, additional methods are being employed including the removal of fuels around the trees, and ground-based sprinkler systems to increase humidity and fuel moisture near the sequoias. The Mariposa Grove has a long history of prescribed burning and studies have shown that these efforts reduce the impacts of high-severity fire.
Firefighters are constructing direct fireline on the fire edge where possible, but are also using tactical firing to tie it in with barriers, such as Highway 41 on the west side.
Evacuations are in effect in the Wawona area. A map is available showing the locations. The Wawona Road (Highway 41) is closed from the South Entrance to Henness Ridge Road. Yosemite West remains accessible from the northern side of the Wawona road.
The weather forecast for the fire area (6,400 feet above sea level) predicts for Monday and Tuesday 81 degrees, 3 to 8 mph west and southwest winds, relative humidity in the low to mid-20s, partly cloudy skies, and no chance of rain.
Updated 5:34 p.m. PDT July 10, 2022
The Washburn Fire, part of which is burning in a grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park, has grown to 2,045 acres, according to a mapping flight at about 4 p.m. Saturday. Most of the additional acres are on the north and east sides. It spread closer to the South Fork of the Merced River, but at that time had not crossed. The east side has moved across the county line, from Mariposa into Madera county.
Three large air tankers and a very large air tanker dropped retardant along a ridge in mid-afternoon, pretreating it in anticipation that when the fire reaches that location the spread will be slowed or stopped.
Late in the afternoon the fire activity increased substantially, sending up a substantial smoke column which was blown off to the north.
9:11 a.m. PDT July 10, 2022
With very little wind Saturday, the Washburn Fire continued to spread in and adjacent to the Mariposa grove of giant sequoia trees in Yosemite National Park in California. In spite of the relatively mild weather conditions, spot fires are occurring hundreds of feet out in front of the leading edge. The growth into the grove has been limited due to previous prescribed fires that reduced the amount of fuel on the ground, and by the efforts of firefighters. Some of the trees are about 3,000 years old.
While the huge, very old trees are adapted to fire, they are not prepared for human caused climate change and the current “exceptional drought” conditions that have led to low soil and fuel moistures. The monster trees are more vulnerable to the existing weather and fuel conditions. They only grow in about 70 groves located on the western slopes of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. They are the largest trees on Earth in terms of volume.
The fire was mapped Friday night at 1,591 acres. Approximately 300 acres are in the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, on the west and north sides.
Smoke at times on Saturday degraded visibility to the point where retardant-dropping aircraft were grounded. Most of the movement of the fire was on the north end where it is working its way down-slope to the South Fork of the Merced River, which is also the southern edge of the South Fork Fire that burned 7,563 acres in 2017. The footprint of that 5-year-old fire scar will not stop the fire by itself, but there will be less resistance to control as it spreads through the lighter fuels.
The Washburn Fire is burning in mostly high load conifer litter with a heavy dead and down component as well as numerous standing dead trees.
There was very little wind on the fire Saturday and none overnight at Fish Camp, south of the fire and 1,000 feet lower where the minimum humidity Saturday was 31 percent but rose to 83 percent by 7:31 a.m. Sunday. Warmer and drier weather is predicted for the next few days.
The weather forecast for the fire area on Sunday calls for temperature around 80, relative humidity 26 percent, and ridgetop winds out of the west at 5 mph gusting to 12 mph in the afternoon. For Sunday night, 66 degrees, 33 percent RH, and 5 to 10 mph northwest winds in the evening shifting to east after 9 p.m. Monday should bring 83 degrees, 20 percent RH, and 5 to 10 mph winds out of the southeast shifting to southwest by 11 a.m.
Preparing for fire: The Grizzly Giant is the most renowned giant sequoia in Yosemite National Park. Standing at 209 feet it is the second largest tree in the Yosemite, and one of the most photographed.The Grizzly Giant is in the Mariposa Grove impacted by the Washburn Fire. pic.twitter.com/jnIlm9Gemn
— Yosemite Fire and Aviation Management (@YosemiteFire) July 10, 2022