California wildfire threatens 1,500-year-old sequoias
Wednesday, July 24, 2002
PINE FLAT, Calif. -- A raging wildfire threatened some of America's giant sequoias Tuesday and the Forest Service called in more than 1,000 firefighters in an all-out effort to save the towering symbols of the West.
The 38,000-acre blaze roared through the deep valleys of the Giant Sequoia National Monument and came within two miles of the Trail of 100 Giants, a grove of majestic sequoias that are among the largest and most ancient trees on Earth, with trunks up to 1,500 years old and 20 feet in diameter.
As of midday, the fire had consumed only some smaller species of trees and the winds were blowing the flames away from the Trail of 100 Giants. But the blaze was headed toward another stand of the big redwoods, the Freeman Creek Grove.
Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes called the sequoias "priceless" and said that air tankers and helicopters were also called in to help save the trees. The monument is situated 130 miles north of Los Angeles.
Sequoias can live more than 3,200 years, their massive trunks capable of withstanding countless fires. But fires can kill them when other trees spread flames to the sequoias' limbs high above the ground.
The danger to the trees is higher than usual because of a considerable amount of underbrush and weeks of extremely dry weather, Mathes said.
"These trees can withstand a lot of fire, but if there's a lot of fuel build-up on the forest floor, and temperature and humidity and winds are not favorable, we could have a problem," he said.
Some forestry plans to prevent fires by removing trees from the monument have been blocked by the courts, said Del Pengilly, a district ranger. "Every other project we've tried to do, the environmentalists have filed a lawsuit," he said.
Carl Zichella, regional staff director of the Sierra Club, disagreed. He said the problem was decades of fire suppression that left standing smaller trees that allow fires to climb into the crowns of bigger trees.
Fire crews were also in place to protect about 200 homes.
Forest Service officials said the blaze was likely started by an escaped campfire Sunday, and it blew up as it fed on dry brush in a region that has not had rain since the spring. Smaller trees exploded like torches as the fire skipped from treetop to treetop, pushed by erratic winds. No arrests have been made.
More than 1,000 people fled and at least 10 structures were burned.
The fire was only 20 percent contained Tuesday. And because the monument's deep canyons and mountain ridges make for erratic winds, it was hard to predict where the fire would go.
Among those evacuated were several hundred Boy Scouts, campers and residents of two hamlets, Johnsondale and Ponderosa.
"I was scared. I've never seen it so close. It was coming so fast," said Simone Wallace, who left her home in Johnsondale on Sunday and was staying in a motel with her boyfriend and daughter.
The 328,000-acre monument was created in 2000 by President Clinton to protect the giant sequoias as well as Indian archaeological sites.
The Trail of 100 Giants includes 125 giant sequoias over 10 feet in diameter, and more than 143 sequoias under 10 feet in diameter. The largest in the grove has a diameter of 20 feet and is 220 feet tall. The trees are between 500 and 1,500 years old.
Jim Paxon, spokesman for a national team of elite firefighters called in to manage the blaze, warned: "If fire does get in the Trail of 100 Giants, we won't be putting firefighters in there to try to stop it. It will be a climax of 300- or 400-foot flames."
The blaze was not considered a threat to the General Sherman tree, which is in Sequoia National Park, well to the north. At 275 feet tall and 30 feet across, it is considered the nation's largest tree as well as the world's largest living thing based on volume.
A second fire that charred 1,800 acres and about 25 structures, including 10 homes, in neighboring Kern County was largely contained Tuesday.
Elsewhere, residents were allowed to return home as crews made progress against a 4,100-acre fire outside Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
In southern Oregon, rain helped crews fighting a 34,000-acre wildfire. Nearly 300 National Guardsmen were also helping out.