A fire in California that is threatening some of the oldest living organisms on Earth exploded over the weekend, coming dangerously close to Sequoia National Park’s iconic Giant Forest as firefighters are scrambling to protect the trees.
The National Park Service said Monday that the KNP Complex Fire is nearly 24,000 acres—a huge jump from just last Wednesday, when the fire had burned about 5,000 acres. The steep terrain and dangerous fire conditions mean the blaze current is burning completely uncontrolled. According to Inciweb, a clearinghouse for U.S. wildfire information, low humidity levels have allowed the fire to stay “active.” Even though “cooler and more moist conditions” have developed in the area Monday, the cold front has also brought stronger winds, meaning the fire could still spread further.
The KNP Complex Fire is tearing through the western portion of Sequoia National Park and threatening the edges of the park’s Giant Forest, which is home to 8,000 sequoia trees. That includes the 2,300-year-old General Sherman, one of the world’s oldest and largest living organisms, measuring 103 feet (31 meters around) and 275 feet (84 meters) tall. The European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service released an image Monday showing the extent of the fire on Saturday. The imagery shows just how close the fire’s edge is to the Giant Forest.
Last week, park staff attempted to protect General Sherman and other sequoias by wrapping the trees—as well as park signage—in a special layer of foil that can help repel fire. The NPS said that the fires had reached the edge of the Giant Forest on Friday. Some firefighters working to wrap the trees in foil and to clean debris from their bases had to flee from the oncoming fire, a park spokesperson told the AP. But they were able to return and start a controlled backfire along the Generals Highway, a road that leads to the grove, to keep the unruly flames of the KNP Complex at bay.
The AP also reported Sunday that the fires had reached the fringe of Long Meadow Grove, a 341-acre tract that is home to the mile-long Trail of 100 Giants, a national monument. While monument officials did not have updated information on if any trees had been destroyed there, an AP reporter “saw active flames burning up a trunk, with the forest floor ablaze below.”
Giant sequoias have evolved to withstand—and thrive—during normal wildfire conditions, a regular blazes help kill smaller trees that use up resources. But ultra-hot blazes—some of which can jump to the vulnerable crowns of trees—have made conditions dire for the giant trees in recent years.
“Once you get fire burning inside the tree, that will result in mortality,” Jon Wallace, the operations section chief for the KNP Complex, told reporters last week.
Sequoia National Park was forced to close last week and employees living in the park evacuated, and a town at the entrance of the park was also put under evacuation orders. While parts of the park are open, it warned on its Facebook page that any visitors should expect poor air quality and visibility and come “prepared with food, drinks, N95 masks, and a full tank of gas. These areas could close with little notice.”
Last year, some 10% of the world’s sequoia population were burned in a different fire in the park, and in May park staff found a tree still smoldering from last year’s Castle Fire, showing how dry conditions are in the park. Climate change has contributed to the megadrought gripping the West and is making more intense fire weather more common. Decades of forest mismanagement have also made battling blazes all the more challenging. The NPS is continuing “protection and mitigation measures for all sequoia groves within the fire area, including the Giant Forest Sequoia Grove,” Inciweb reported.