Up to 19% of the Earth's sequoias have been destroyed by wildfires
As the ash settles from the KNP Complex and Windy fires that together scorched nearly 300 square miles across California's Sierra Nevada, the outlook for the world's giant sequoias is grim: Thousands of the majestic monarchs perished in the blazes, the National Park Service announced Friday.
Between 2,200 and 3,600 adult sequoias were either killed by the fires or are expected to die within the next five years — amounting to 3% to 5% of the Earth's sequoia trees, according to NPS estimates. Scientists used satellite imagery, overhead flights, and on-the-ground surveys to arrive at the figure.
The destruction comes on the heels of last year's Castle Fire, which torched between 10% to 14% of the world's sequoias — some 10,000 trees — in the same region of the southern Sierra.
In the worst-case scenario, wildfires have killed 19% — nearly a fifth — of the world's sequoia trees in just over a year.
“The sobering reality is that we have seen another huge loss within a finite population of these iconic trees that are irreplaceable in many lifetimes,” Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks Superintendent Clay Jordan said.
In total, 28 giant sequoia groves were affected by the fires. While giant sequoia rely on low-to-moderate severity fire to burst their pinecones and reproduce, the recent mega-blazes that have hit the west can spread to the trees' crowns and incinerate them.
These uncharacteristically hot and ferocious fires are the result of a century of fire-suppression policies that saw forest managers stamping out flames as quickly as they erupted, even those that posed little threat to property or the public. The result: Forests today are much denser than they have been at any other point in history.
The added stresses of climate change and a record-busting drought now gripping much of California has resulted in a perfect storm for high-severity fire to take hold across the towering trees' only native habitat, the western slopes of California's Sierra Nevada.
“I am going to tell you that it does not ever get easy, looking at a monarch giant sequoia that has died. That is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to look at in my 30-year career with the forest service,” said Teresa Bensen, Sequoia National Forest supervisor. “It is not a good thing for the environment.”
Despite the grim outlook, not all of the news is bad. Many of the groves and parkland experienced beneficial fire or no fire at all.
The world-famous Giant Forest Grove and the Earth's largest tree, General Sherman, survived the KNP Complex due to the efforts of firefighters and a long history of prescribed fire-controlled burns that clear the forest of fuels to keep them healthy and fire resilient.
Indigenous peoples living across the Sierra practiced cultural burning for centuries before white settlers arrived and eliminated fire from the natural landscape. Sequoia managers worked with Indigenous leaders and UC Berkeley researchers to return fire to the Sierra's landscape in the 1960s and '70s.
Gov. Gavin Newsom visited Sequoia National Park in September to sign a $15 billion climate bill into law that, in part, pledged millions of dollars in grants to significantly increase the number of controlled burns across California.
Lightning sparked the KNP Complex and Windy fires in Sequoia National Park and the Tule River Indian Reservation in early September.
The KNP Complex has burned 88,000 acres and is 75% contained. Fire managers believe the fire could burn in remote areas through the winter due to the heavy fuels that can smolder even in rain and snowfall.
Most of Sequoia National Park remains closed to the public as park officials continue to repair roads and clear heavily trafficked areas of hazardous trees. Park officials hope to welcome the public back to Giant Forest by January.
In the meantime, visitors can access giant sequoia trees, including the world's second-largest tree, General Grant, via Kings Canyon National Park.
Joshua Yeager is a reporter with the Visalia Times-Delta and a Report for America corps member. He covers Tulare County news deserts with a focus on the environment and local governments.