General Sherman, Giant Forest survive KNP Complex Fire as blaze threatens other sequoia groves

Joshua Yeager
Visalia Times-Delta
Operations Section Chief Jon Wallace examines the structure wrap used to protect the General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park during the KNP Complex Fire on Wednesday, September 22, 2021.

A history of prescribed fire and controlled burning in Sequoia National Park is paying off as an army of firefighters defend the world's largest tree, General Sherman, and thousands of other giant sequoias from the raging KNP Complex.

"Protecting communities and life is our No. 1 priority, and saving the giant sequoia trees is our No. 2 priority," said Clay Jordan, superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. "They're virtually irreplaceable. People come from all over the world to see these trees."

The blaze started as two fires during a Sept. 9 lighting storm before merging into one and exploding in size, forcing the park to close and communities to evacuate. The KNP Complex has scorched 30,000 acres with 0% containment as of Thursday morning.

Firefighters have gone to extraordinary lengths to save the big trees, including wrapping General Sherman's 37-foot-wide trunk in a fire-resistant wrap that brought national attention to the wildfire.

But the most successful measures to protect the sequoias, firefighters said, happened years before the KNP Complex sent crews from across the country scrambling to the slopes and ridges of California's Sierra Nevada, the trees' only natural habitat.

Decades of prescribed fire — highly controlled burns carried out and overseen by professionals — have cleared the groves of brush and fuels that cause wildfires to get established and grow out of control. Flames shrunk from 20- to 30-foot tall to just 2 or 3 feet at the grove's entrance, allowing crews to focus on protecting the monarchs.

"30 years of prescribed fire made the difference protecting these natural wonders," said John Wallace, KNP Complex operations chief. "It made our job so much easier."

Ed Christopher looks up near the Four Guardsmen sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park on Wednesday, September 22, 2021. Christopher is the Deputy Fire Director at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

'A tale of two fires'

Park officials describe the situation unfolding within the KNP Complex as "a tale of two fires." Low-intensity fires, or "good fire," keeps low to the ground and helps the forest stay healthy.

Bad fire torches entire swathes of dense and desiccated forest, running from crown to crown and can kill giant sequoias. Bad fires, scientists say, are becoming more frequent across the Sierra because of a "perfect storm" of climate-change-driven drought and poor forest management. 

"It's a huge loss ecologically. [giant sequoia] store a lot of carbon and are great habitats, but it's also an emotional loss," said Christy Brigham, chief of resource management and science for Sequoia National Park. "The only reason they're threatened now is because of climate change and poor forest management, and that to me is heartbreaking to see a 2,000-year-old tree turned into a matchstick.

Fire is an essential part of the sequoia lifecycle, causing the tree's pinecones to burst and spread seeds to the newly cleared forest floor below. Sequoias have several other adaptations that make them among the most fire-resistant species globally, including 12-foot-thick bark and crowns that grow hundreds of feet above the forest floor.

Historically, lightning-caused fires to roll through sequoia groves every 10 to 20 years, and Indigenous tribes continued the tradition with cultural burning. However, when white settlers arrived in California and the Sierra, fire was virtually eliminated from the landscape.

Over the next 100 years, overzealous fire-suppression policies transformed John Muir's vistas into overgrown tinderboxes, Brigham said. In the last decade, climate change and a mega-drought provided the match.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Superintendent Clay Jordan speaks Wednesday, September 22, 2021 at the base of the General Sherman Tree. Previous prescribed burns in the area and removing fuels from around the tree are credited with saving the historic icon.

The Castle Fire in 2020 tore through about two dozen groves, killing 10% to 14% of the world's mature sequoias, an unprecedented die-off that jolted scientists into action.

Now, the race is on to protect and preserve the remaining sequoia trees, Brigham said. The Windy Fire, currently burning just south of the KNP Complex, has entered the Giant Sequoia National Monument in Sequoia National Forest and severely burned at least one famous monarch.

To that end, Sequoia National Park and other sequoia managers have formed the Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition to protect the world's remaining monarchs from the threat of climate-changed fueled mega-fires through forest treatments prescribed burning, and other techniques.

As sequoia managers call for more resources to complete prescribed burns and forest treatments, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he would visit Sequoia National Park on Thursday to sign into law a $15 billion climate package "to combat the climate crisis, tackle catastrophic wildfires and help build a resilient California of the future."

It's the largest such investment any state has made, the governor's office said in a press release.

"The package includes investments to support immediate drought response and long-term water resilience, promote sustainability and protect communities across the state from multi-faceted climate risks, including extreme heat and sea-level rise," the announcement said.

Joshua Yeager covers water, agriculture, parks, and housing for the Visalia Times-Delta and Tulare Advance-Register newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @VTD_Joshy. Get alerts and keep up on all things Tulare County for as little as $1 a month. Subscribe today.

Christy Brigham, Chief of Resources Management & Science, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, right, and Operations Section Chief Jon Wallace discuss the Four Guardsman sequoia trees Wednesday, September 22, 2021 during a media tour for the KNP Complex Fire in Sequoia National Park.