Sequoias Are Being Wrapped in Special Foil to Protect Them From Fires

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At least two wildfire complexes are threatening some of the giant sequoia groves in Central California.

A giant sequoia in Kings Canyon National Park that survived the Rough fire of 2015. It was weakened enough that beetles killed it a few years later.
Credit...Max Whittaker for The New York Times

Christine Hauser

Sept. 17, 2021Updated 4:48 p.m. ET

Firefighters are swaddling giant sequoias in a flame-retardant foil in an effort to protect the ancient trees from wildfires that are raging through national parks in California, officials said.

Three wildfires, named Colony, Paradise and Windy, were ignited by lightning on Sept. 9. Since then, they have scorched thousands of acres of steep terrain, bringing them to the foot of some of the world’s oldest and largest trees in the Giant Sequoia National Monument of the Sequoia National Forest, and in Kings Canyon National Park in Central California.

Park officials have been working to contain the spread of the fires using water and aerial drops of fire retardant. This week they also started wrapping some of the most well-known of the giant sequoias along the walking trail, including one called the General Sherman, in case the fires surge uphill into groves of giant sequoias.

“It is like a big spool,” said Mark Garrett, a spokesman for the fire incident team that is monitoring a set of fires known as the KNP Complex in the Sequoia groves and in Kings Canyon National Park.

“They just unwrapped the roll and went around the base of the tree,” he said. “If fire got into the giant forest, I would be pretty confident that grove is going to be fine.”

Mr. Garrett said they had to tailor the wrap to fit the General Sherman’s girth. (The tree is more than 36 feet across at its base.) The wrapping went as high as six feet high or more, he estimated.

So far, he could confirm only that the General Sherman, which is 275 feet tall, had been blanketed. Other well-known giants along the popular trail are also going to be wrapped with the laminate of foil and fiber, which firefighters also use to make their shelters.

The firefighters are also clearing the terrain of undergrowth, essentially starving the flames by leaving them little to consume. But heavy smoke was hampering firefighting efforts, Mr. Garrett said.

The KNP Complex fire, which as of Friday had grown to over 11,000 acres, is to the south and west of the grove that is home to the oldest sequoias, and one of the biggest in the world.

The other fire threatening the sequoias, about 40 miles south, called the Windy fire, was burning out of control over more than 6,800 acres on Friday. That fire is tearing through the Tule River Reservation and the Sequoia National Forest, said Thanh Nguyen, another fire incident team spokesman.

“It has not reached the giant sequoias,” he said. “There are multiple groves and a handful are under threat.”

“We don’t know the extent of damage at this point,” Mr. Nguyen added. “It is in a really inaccessible area.”

Over the past year, wildfires have burned millions of acres across California and other Western states, destroying hundreds of giant sequoias, countless redwoods and over a million Joshua trees.

From 2015 through 2020, two-thirds of all grove acreage of giant sequoias across the Sierra Nevada was burned in wildfires, compared with only one-quarter in the preceding century, according to the National Park Service.

The Castle wildfire last year alone charred more than 170,000 acres. Seven thousand to 11,000 large sequoias across the Sierra Nevada, or about 10 to 14 percent of the world’s sequoias, died in that fire, according to the National Park Service.

Giant sequoias can be up to 3,400 years old and grow taller than 300 feet. But drought and global warming have upended the life cycles of sequoia trees, which have typically died from falling, the park service said.

A severe drought from 2012 through 2016 transformed their ecosystem, the service has said.

But prescribed burns, or fires set on purpose to clear undergrowth, since the 1960s have helped the sequoias survive, Mr. Garrett said. They also have natural fire-retardant qualities, such as tannin in their fibrous bark, which can be three feet thick, and the older ones have canopies of branches well above the ground, away from the highest flames.

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