Wildfires Scar the Sierra

Thousands of giant redwoods, the world's most massive tree, have died in California wildfires since 2020

Sequoia sempervirens, or the coast redwood, thrives in the damp climate along the Pacific Ocean in California. Some are more than 2,000 years old, and the tallest can reach 380 feet. California is also home to a second type of giant redwood, Sequoiadendron giganteum, or giant sequoia. The world’s most massive tree, it grows in the inland Sierra Nevada mountains, sustained by melting snowpack. The oldest sequoias are 3,000 years old, and although not as tall as coast redwoods, they are wider, sometimes reaching an impressive 30 feet in diameter.

Redwoods draw crowds, but they are also ecologically important. They act as natural water filters, processing trillions of gallons of clean, drinkable water every year. Redwood forests store at least three times as much carbon as any other kind of forest, and because the individual trees live for thousands of years, the carbon storage is long-term. That makes them important actors in the story of California’s changing climate.

In Sequoia National Park, home to the most spectacular groves of Sequoia Trees on earth, wildfire damage and destruction is everywhere. The worst of the completely dead groves are at the north end of the park. Sequoia National Forest and Kings Canyon groves were also damaged by fires. The area just south of Lost Grove is some of the worst devastation where the fires topped 7,000+-foot mountains.

The survival of these incredible trees is obviously threatened. Climate change, pathogens, and years of misguided forest management practices have helped to make wildfire California's signature menace, and even these ancient trees are not immune.

2021 Wildfires Kill Unprecedented Numbers of Large Trees

2021's Windy Fire burned more than 97,000 acres in Sequoia National Forest and the Tule River Reservation. It killed an estimated 1,257 giant sequoia trees. The fire burned at an estimated 3000° F. Giant sequoias, despite their incredible age, have not evolved quickly enough to survive extremely hot fires. Another 2021 fire, the KNP Complex Fire, which burned 88,307 acres. By itself the KNP Complex fire burned 16 sequoia groves. Scientists estimate that as many as 2,380 large sequoias were killed in the KNP Complex fire. Taken together the two fires killed 3,637 giant sequoia trees, many pictured here.

The circumstances that have enabled California's unprecedented fires haven’t improved much in the last decade. That’s why groups tasked with protecting the old-growth trees—including the state and national parks systems and the nonprofit Save the Redwoods League—practice active, hands-on management. This includes controlled burns and “restoration thinning,” the harvesting of smaller, younger trees to make way for older, larger ones.

Echoing many of the world’s forest agencies and preservation groups, Save the Redwoods League, which celebrated its centennial last year, says active management is the best way to guarantee the regrowth and preservation of forests in the aftermath of clear-cutting and in the modern era of climate change

The north end of Sequoia National Park is completely devastated. To the south of the park entire mountains are denuded of trees from recent fires. One has to question why with California's $97 billion budget surplus more is not being done to protect these irreplaceable forests with their groves of giant sequoias. I sent a letter asking that question, along with these photos to California Governor Gavin Newsom but I haven't received a reply.

And yet, a century of forest management still hasn’t made clear if thinning and prescribed burns are helping redwoods. Some environmentalists say forest thinning is simply logging by another name—a charge that goes back to the early 1900s, when logging was at its peak. Since Europeans began to settle permanently in California, 95 percent of the state’s old-growth coast redwoods and 33 percent of the old-growth sequoias have been lost. Today, some activist groups and scientists say these majestic trees would do best if left alone.

Prior to the 20th century, the periodic wildfires that swept through the giant sequoia forest system helped create a nutrient-rich soil and kept the understory free from the brushy undergrowth that would otherwise out-compete young sequoia trees. But then, in 1910, a series of devastating fires spread across the western U.S. By 1926, the United States Forest Service had adopted a policy of fire suppression for all fires covering 10 acres or more. The objective was total fire exclusion—keeping all fire out of wildland areas—in order to reduce the loss of resources and minimize firefighting costs.

But fire exclusion brought unintended consequences. When excess vegetation is allowed to grow, it creates the perfect conditions for devastating megafires, which burn faster and hotter and can potentially kill the old-growth trees that would have easily survived smaller fires. California’s recent drought has exacerbated the problem, spurring tree deaths. “There’s like 100 and something million dead trees in the Sierras right now,” says Richard Campbell, director of restoration at Save the Redwoods League.

Prescribed burning is one way to undo the damage caused by fire exclusion, Campbell says. A prescribed burn is a fire that’s planned and executed by people, and in modern forestry it’s one of the most important tools for managing forests. Forest managers set these fires under tightly controlled conditions that take into account things like public safety, weather, and specific objectives for the trajectory and end goals of the fire.

Prescribed burning has been practiced in the giant sequoia forests since the 1960s, when the ecologist Harold H. Biswell began studying fuel reduction in redwood stands near Sequoia National Park, earning himself the nickname “Harry the Torch.” Two decades later, when the Pierce Fire moved through Sequoia National Forest, it burned old-growth trees. But when the blaze entered the Redwood Mountain giant sequoia grove—a part of the park that had been subject to a controlled burn a few years prior—it became less intense and crews were able to contain it.

Existential Threat

On a dead still November morning in the Sierra Nevada, two researchers walk through a graveyard of giants. Below their feet: a layer of ash and coal. Above their heads: a charnel house of endangered trees.

This is Alder Creek Grove, a once idyllic environment for a majestic and massive specimen: the giant sequoia. It is now a blackened monument to a massive wildfire—and humankind’s far-reaching impact on the environment. But these two researchers have come to do more than pay their respects.

Linnea Hardlund and Alexis Bernal, both of the University of California, Berkeley, are studying the effects of record-breaking fires such as the one that destroyed large swaths of Alder Creek Grove in the hopes that their findings will inform forest management that might preserve giant sequoias for future generations.

So far, those findings are grim: mortality is near 100 percent where the wildfires burned most intensely. Of the mighty trees that stood watch for thousands of years, only charred skeletons remain.

About a century of aggressive fire suppression and a warming, drier climate have created a perfect environment for unprecedented fire. On August 19, 2020, it came to the Giant Sequoia National Monument. The SQF Complex was two fires—the Castle and Shotgun fires—that burned for more than four months, affecting nearly 175,000 acres. And a preliminary report on the Castle Fire estimated that 10 to 14 percent of all living giant sequoias were destroyed.

Hardlund, who is also at the nonprofit Save the Redwoods League, and Bernal fear that, without scientifically informed intervention, such fires will continue to return to the Sierra Nevada—leaving the once proud guardians of the forest a memory and another casualty of our ecological failure.

It should be noted that this area is represented in Congress by Kevin McCarthy, Republican supporter of Donald Trump's January 6, 2021 attempted coup. I wonder how Mr. McCarthy feels about irreplaceable trees? I would guess he is more interested in chainsaws. His requested for money from the FED to help the Sequoia Groves have so far been anemic.