Once thought to be basically immortal, sequoias are now dying in droves

(Quote from Kyle Dickman’s article in Outside)

firefighter giant sequoia Washburn Fire Yosemite National Park
A firefighter in Yosemite National Park scrapes material away from a giant sequoia during the Washburn Fire in July 2022. NPS photo by Garrett Dickman.

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.

Mr. Dickman is a former member of the Tahoe Interagency Hotshot Crew and spent five seasons fighting fires. He wrote the book “On the Burning Edge: A fateful Fire and the Men Who Fought It“, which is about the Granite Mountain Hotshots and the fire where all but one of them died in 2013, the Yarnell Hill Fire.

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.”

Kyle Dickman profiles Tom Harbour

The author of On the Burning Edge, a book about the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew that was virtually wiped out fighting the Yarnell Hill fire in 2013, has written a long form article about the August wildfires in the west. A good portion of the piece by Kyle Dickman profiles Tom Harbour, the U.S. Forest Service’s National Director of Fire and Aviation Management. I don’t recall seeing such a personal look at the man who wields power at the top of the USFS firefighting food chain — with the possible exception of when he answered our 12 Questions.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

…To contend with California’s regular fires, the Forest Service set up two command centers, with one, in Redding, called North Ops. Redding sits in a bowl in the Sacramento Valley, and as Harbour arrives, the wind is filling that bowl with eye-stinging smoke. On the grounds, a long-haired smokejumper in flip-flops pedals a cruiser bike around the base while air tankers loaded with fire retardant take off from the runway. The mood isn’t festive, but one feels the excitement and gravity of a shared sense of purpose. The command staff hustle about to send firefighters and gear to the front lines. Several stop to shake Harbour’s hand. He joins a briefing headed by Paige Boyer, the assistant director for fire and aviation management for Northern California.

“We really want to get that fire off the map,” Boyer says to a half-dozen of her colleagues gathered before a map. “We want it out of the public eye.” Boyer taps the northeast corner of the map, where red colors the fire where a firefighter died.

Three days earlier, Harbour had flown to Alturas, Calif., to pay his respects to the family of that engine captain, 38-year-old Dave Ruhl. He’d disappeared while scouting a fire near the city limits. His crew didn’t find his body right away, and while CNN and the Associated Press zeroed in on the details of the first fire death of the 2015 season, Harbour arranged to meet his folks, as he’s tried to do for each of the 163 firefighters—both Forest Service and non—lost on duty in the past 10 years…

Kyle Dickman: “Stop expecting firefighters to save your homes”

Kyle Dickman, a former wildland firefighter and author of a just released book about the Yarnell Hill Fire on which 19 firefighters were killed, has written an opinion piece for CNN titled Stop expecting firefighters to save your homes.

Below is an excerpt from the article on CNN:

…But asking firefighters to risk their lives to save unprepared homes from the most volatile blazes is like asking the National Guard to control a hurricane. It’s negligent. Even still, firefighters want to help people and put their training to use, and it can be hard for these brave men and women to recognize the limits of their abilities…
In the aftermath [of the Yarnell Hill Fire], some of the 127 homeowners who lost their houses during that blaze sued the State of Arizona for failing to protect the town. The judge threw out the lawsuit, and in doing so, gave active support to the rarely spoken truth that firefighters simply cannot stop the highest intensity fires. We’re witnessing that reality now more than ever…

Mr. Dickman’s book is titled On The Burning Edge: A Fateful Fire and the Men Who Fought It.

Errors in a review of a book about the Yarnell Hill Fire

The article below was written by John N. Maclean and Holly Neill.


The Wall Street Journal and Fire

By John Maclean and Holly Neill

Kyle Dickman’s new book, On the Burning Edge, about hotshot culture and the Yarnell Hill Fire, has been reviewed in the Saturday, May 23, edition of the Wall Street Journal by Mark Yost, who is identified as a firefighter and paramedic from Highwood, Illinois. The review makes a number of errors and misleading assertions about fire policy and the Yarnell Hill Fire independent of the material in Dickman’s book. Journal reviews receive respectful attention, but the review is wrong on so many points that it should be answered in a timely fashion–Maclean is preparing a review of Dickman’s book for the Journal of Forestry, but that won’t appear for several months.

Yost writes: “The policy of letting low burns do their work was in place until the 1980s, when environmentalists began lobbying for letting underbrush and tracts of forest go uncut, unmanaged and uncleared by small fires. The result was denser forests and forest beds of virtual kindling.”

Response: As every student of wildfire knows, after the Big Burn of 1910 the Forest Service developed a policy, in force for many decades, to put out all fires by 10 AM the morning after they were spotted.

Yost writes: “The Yarnell assignment came on a Sunday, normally a day off for the crew. The fire, started by lightning the day before…”

Response: The fire was started Friday, June 28, 2013, two days before the fatalities occurred on Sunday.

Yost writes: “When the Granite Mountain crew arrived, the flames were closing in on the small town of Yarnell.”

Response: When the Granite Mountain crew arrived on Sunday morning, the flames, which were far from Yarnell, were headed north and away from the town, toward Peeples Valley.

Yost writes that the lookout, Brendan McDonough, was in his fourth season.

Response: McDonough was in the beginning of his third season.

Yost writes that when the fire turned toward Yarnell, in the afternoon, McDonough “was no longer in a position to see what was going on and warn his crewmates.”

Response: McDonough reported to Jesse Steed, acting Granite Mountain Superintendent (normally assistant superintendent) that he could see that the fire had reached his trigger point and he was departing, which he did. At that point, photo and other evidence proves that Steed and the other hotshots could see exactly what the fire was doing.

Yost writes that Eric Marsh, (normally the superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots), was “attached to the command staff on the day of the Yarnell fire, he was at first stationed in a makeshift outpost along a highway.”

Response: Marsh was never stationed at a makeshift outpost. He led the crew to the fire by scouting ahead and flagging an upward route. As far as being “attached to the command staff,” Marsh was made division Alpha supervisor and performed that duty in the field.

Yost writes: “The Granite Mountain crew had left the black and were working on the side of a hill, a dangerous position, Mr. Dickman explains, because it put them in danger of the fire coming down on top of them.

Response: The hotshots were digging direct handline, with one foot in the black, on the side of the hill. There was risk of the fire coming up to them from below, not coming down on top of them from the black above.

Yost writes: “Some investigators have speculated that, when the wind reversed, sending flames speeding toward the firefighters, they made a desperate attempt to get to a nearby horse farm and just didn’t make it.”

Response: No serious investigator has made that charge. It is agreed, and supported by photo and recorded radio exchanges as well as interview accounts, that the hotshots deliberately left their position and headed toward the ranch, which was identified as a safety zone. The ranch is not a horse farm: it is owned by Lee and DJ Helm who keep pets, including miniature horses, donkeys and shelter animals.

Yost writes about the fatalities, “In the event, the fire moved so fast that rescuers were able to get to the team within minutes—but too late.”

Response: Firefighters work as crews, not as teams. It took an hour and 43 minutes, or 103 minutes, from the time Eric Marsh said over the radio that the crew was deploying until a medic reached the deployment site, according to official investigation records.


The book review in the Wall Street Journal can be seen HERE, but you generally have to be a paid subscriber to view it. However, mobile phone users can sometimes read it without a subscription.

John N. Maclean has written several books about wildland fire, including “Fire on the Mountain”, “Fire and Ashes”, and “The Thirtymile Fire”. His most recent book, “The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57”, is slated to be made into a movie. Currently he is working on a book about the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Outside Magazine covers the Yarnell Hill Fire

Granite Mountain Hotshots Yarnell Hill Fire
Granite Mountain Hotshots hike to the Yarnell Hill Fire, June 30, 2013. Photo by Joy Collura.

Outside Magazine has a lengthy article in their November issue about the last days of the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who were killed when they were overrun by the Yarnell Hill Fire southeast of Prescott, Arizona on June 30, 2013.

Author Kyle Dickman obviously spent a lot of time interviewing Brendan “Donut” McDonough, the sole survivor from the crew, and several family members of the 19 hotshots. The article not only provides some personal information about some crew members and their spouses, but also has a few details about the fire suppression activities that has not yet been made public.

One of the devices used by the author was to tell us what some of the hotshots were thinking, or how they made decisions at key times. It was sometimes preceded by phrases such as “they would have been thinking…”, but it was distracting as I read it, since those firefighters died before they could tell anyone what they were thinking, or why they made certain decisions. Usually Mr. Dickman’s assumptions seemed logical, but he took a bold step by using that writing trick.

For the article, Mr. McDonough apparently provided some information about his actions on the fire as well as his conversations with the Granite Mountain crew leadership and the superintendent of the nearby Blue Ridge Hotshots the afternoon of the entrapment

Surprisingly the article includes a progression map, showing the spread of the fire at 10 to 20 minute intervals before the crew was trapped. It would be interesting to know the source of that very detailed information, or if Mr. McDonough was able to see all of the fire and remembered or recorded the data.

In the excerpt from the article below, “Eric” is Eric Marsh, the superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who during the Yarnell Hill Fire was serving as Division Supervisor for the geographic division which included the Granite Mountain Hotshots. “Donut”, Mr. McDonough, was away from the crew serving as a lookout, adding an element of safety for the crew by observing the location of the fire and taking hourly weather observations. The article explained that one of the reasons he was selected for that task was that he had just recovered from an illness, and the relatively light duty would give him another day to recover. The sad thing is, any firefighter would have trouble recovering from what was supposed to have been “light duty” that June 30 afternoon.

From Outside Magazine:


“THE GRANITE MOUNTAIN crew could see Donut on the UTV racing across the flats. They could see the helicopters and air tankers pivoting from Peeples Valley to Yarnell and dozens of emergency vehicles, lights flashing, speeding down Highway 89 toward Glen Ilah, the subdivision where Truman lived. It would have been difficult for the hotshots, who had been trained to help however they can, to sit idly by and watch houses burn. They would have been thinking of their fellow firefighters placing themselves in harm’s way.

With conditions changing so dramatically, Eric and the crew’s leadership—[acting crew superintendent Captain Jesse] Steed, Clayton [Whitted], Travis [Carter], Robert [Caldwell]—would have gathered for a moment on the ridge to discuss their options while the other hotshots sat perched on white granite boulders watching the drama unfold.

Do we hunker down in the black and do nothing but watch Yarnell burn? Or do we head down there, do some point protection, and try to save a couple of homes? Eric would have made the decision. He couldn’t have imagined that, by heading for town, he was leading his crew toward a series of increasingly compromised circumstances, each more desperate than the last.

He radioed out that Granite Mountain was moving back toward Yarnell.”



Thanks go out to Bruce