After four months and thousands of slain sequoia, KNP Complex Fire reaches full containment

Joshua Yeager
Visalia Times-Delta

After four months, the KNP Complex Fire — which destroyed thousands of giant sequoia and caused extensive damage within Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks — has reached full containment, fire managers announced Friday.

A series of heavy winter storms ultimately defeated the fire that continued to smolder in remote areas of the parks for months after thousands of firefighters launched a months-long effort to defend Sequoia — and its iconic, namesake trees — from the raging fire.

"While the fire has not grown in recent weeks, it has continued to show activity in remote areas. Significant precipitation events across the Sierra Nevada have prompted fire managers to declare the fire fully contained at this time," park officials said in a statement.

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The KNP Complex began as two separate fires on Sept. 9 — both sparked by a massive lightning storm that exploded across California — before merging into the KNP Complex and threatening several mountain communities, including Three Rivers and Silver City.

The fire's dramatic growth was fueled by millions of dead and desiccated trees, victims of an ongoing drought and bark-beetle infestation plaguing the southern Sierra.  

At the fire's peak, firefighting crews from around the country rallied to defend General Sherman, the Earth's largest tree by volume, from encroaching flames. Photos of the tree wrapped in fire-resistant wrap circulated around the globe as fire crews talked up the beneficial effects of prescribed burning, crediting the Giant Forest's survival to decades of planned and highly controlled burns carried out by the National Park Service.

Snow rests on a wildfire-scorched sequoia tree, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021, in Sequoia Crest, Calif. Archangel Ancient Tree Archive is planting sequoia seedlings in the area. The effort led by the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, a nonprofit trying to preserve the genetics of the biggest old-growth trees, is one of many extraordinary measures being taken to save giant sequoias that were once considered nearly fire-proof and are in jeopardy of being wiped out by more intense wildfires. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Despite firefighters' best efforts, the fire killed between 3% to 5% of the world's mature sequoia population. That's on top of the devastation wrought by the SQF Complex that charred the same region just one year prior, killing an additional tenth of the world's sequoias, which are endemic to the western slopes of California's Sierra range.

In total, the two fires — along with the Windy Fire that burned to the south of the KNP in the Sequoia National Forest — destroyed up to a fifth of all of the world's sequoia trees, a catastrophic loss that forest managers are still reckoning with. 

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“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, last month. “It is not a good thing for the environment.”

The KNP Complex burned 88,307 acres across the parks and forest. Fire managers breathed a sigh of relief with the announcement of its full containment. 

State Assembly Member Richard Bloom, (D-Santa Monica), left, California Gov. Gavin Newsom listen to Superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Clay Jordan on Thursday, September 23, 2021 talk about the protective structure wrap used to protect the welcome sign and giant sequoia trees from the KNP Complex Fire
in Sequoia National Park. Newsom signed a $15 billion climate package into law on site that will help bolster the state's response to climate change.

“We hope that total containment on the KNP Complex is a comfort not only to local communities but to people everywhere who care about the parks,” said Leif Mathiesen, Assistant Fire Management Officer for Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.

“While the onset of winter weather was the push we needed to reach full containment, it’s thanks to the incredible work of literally thousands of firefighting personnel that we were able to protect and save what we did. We’re very grateful to a lot of people,” he continued.

While the fire is contained, it is not yet considered "out" and will likely continue to burn in areas through the winter. Errant trees burning from last year's SQF Complex were discovered as late as April of this year.

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The fire, which burned heavily at the doorstep of Sequoia's Tulare County headquarters, caused severe damage to some of the park's roads and infrastructure. Access to the Giant Forest reopened to the public this month but is limited to the weekends, for now, weather permitting.

The road to the big trees closed this weekend due to the storm that is putting an end to the fire season but may complicate tourist and travelers' plans. For regularly updated information on what areas and services are accessible, visit go.nps.gov/sekiconditions.

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. 

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.