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.
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.