How to save a giant, ancient tree from a wildfire


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John Muir, a naturalist who was more than a century old, brought President Theodore Roosevelt under an old, gnarled Yosemite National Park tree.

The tree, also known as the “Grizzly Giant”, was more than 2000 years old and stood over 200 feet tall. It had branches several feet in diameter. Soon after, Roosevelt, who described the tree and its surrounding grove as a “temple,” extended federal protections for the park in the Sierra Nevada of California.

The Grizzly Giant was threatened by the Washburn Fire, which has ravaged more than 3,000 acres in southern California’s national park and prompted evacuation orders from Wawona, California.

“We have to go to the ends of the earth to protect this tree,” said Garrett Dickman, a forest ecologist with Yosemite National Park, who is helping to manage the efforts to protect the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, the largest and most popular of the park’s three clusters with more than 500 mature trees.

“The past couple years have been a real wake-up,” he added. “We never thought the giant sequoias would really burn.”

California’s giant sequoias have faced particularly fierce wildfires since 2015, the result of climate change and a lack of frequent fire over the prior century, according to the National Park Service. The imminent threat — which has now reached some of the state’s most exalted trees — has prompted scientists and firefighters to take exceptional steps to save them.

Dickman stated that to help the Grizzly giant, authorities set up a sprinkler system, which pumps between 15 and 20 gallons of water per hour at the base of the tree. This is to increase the humidity. They are also removing any debris from the ground and cutting down small trees that could spark the ancient sequoias.

Other recent fires saw firefighters wrap the trees in flame-retardant foil and spray foam on them. Dickman said he had also considered pointing misters into the air near at-risk trees to create a “wall of water.” In other instances, he said, arborists have climbed up the giant trees to check for embers or to lop off their burning limbs.

During last year’s Windy fire, which burned through more than 1,700 acres in the Giant Sequoia National Monument, smokejumpers — firefighters who usually leap into an active fire zone by parachute — spent about two days making their way up a smoldering tree, he said.

Dickman said that it took some work. “How do you climb a tree that’s on fire?”

Scientists believe that the Mariposa Grove is less at risk than other giant sequoia trees, due to the years of prescribed burning by National Park Service, which they hope has helped it avoid the worst consequences of wildfires.

According to Stanley Bercovitz, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, Tuesday’s fire was 22% contained. It is now moving north. The fire has been extinguished by more than 600 firefighters.

The fire has already burned slowly along parts of the grove’s floor. According to scientists and authorities, the goal is to keep the fire from reaching the tree canopy. Sequoias can withstand heat and scorching, but flames that reach their crowns can torch them.

Once a majority of a giant sequoia’s leaves are gone, it can lose its photosynthetic capacity and die, Nate Stephenson, a scientist emeritus in forest ecology for the U.S. Geological Survey, said. Although giant sequoias need some fire to regenerate, Stephenson added, “the conditions that fires are burning under right now have changed.”

Wildfires are a common occurrence in the West each year. However, scientists have seen the impact of climate change in extreme heat waves this summer that have increased the intensity of these fires. A majority of Mariposa County is also in exceptional drought, the U.S. Drought Monitor’s highest ranking. Trees that are affected by drought will have to compete for water and may be more vulnerable to insect infestation.

In a 15-month period between 2020 and 2021, an estimated 13% to 19% of the world’s population of sequoia trees were killed or mortally wounded, according to a report by the National Park Service. Scientists believe this is especially shocking considering how few people died in the previous centuries.

“I’ve counted a lot of dead giant sequoias, and I don’t like it,” said Dickman, the forest ecologist, who spent last fall counting the trees felled by the Windy fire. Dickman would drive home at the end, get in his car, and then sob.

“It’s like counting dead people,” he added. “It clobbered me.”

On Tuesday morning, officials said that the mature giant sequoias of the Mariposa Grove had “so far avoided serious damage” from the fire, and that they were feeling confident they could save them.

Cicely Muldoon from Yosemite National Park said that while the cause of Washburn’s fire is under investigation, most likely it was caused by humans. She spoke at a Monday community meeting.

“As you all know, there was no lightning on that day,” Muldoon said.


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