Story at a glance
- Scientists for the National Park Service found that a sprawling wildfire in California last year may have wiped out one-tenth of the Earth’s mature sequoia population.
- A lightning strike in the Sequoia National Forest sparked the Castle fire last August and burned more than 150,000 acres before it was contained near the end of December.
- The scientists have cautioned that the report is preliminary and the exact figures still need to be peer reviewed.
A draft report by scientists for the National Park Service (NPS) has found that a sprawling wildfire in California last year might have wiped out one-tenth of the Earth’s mature sequoia population.
A lightning strike in the Sequoia National Forest sparked the Castle fire last August, which reached “General Sherman,” the largest tree on Earth, and burned more than 150,000 acres before fire departments were able to contain the wildfire near the end of December.
“I cannot overemphasize how mind-blowing this is for all of us,” said Christy Brigham, chief of resources management and science at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. “These trees have lived for thousands of years. They’ve survived dozens of wildfires already.”
Researchers have made their way through the remnants of the burnt forests in recent months to examine the destruction.
In May, a sequoia was spotted by a researcher with Sequoia’s fire ecology and research team who saw smoke coming from a ravine and found one giant sequoia still smoldering. Embers inside the tree withstood months of rain and snow over the past winter.
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In the draft report the NPS shared with the Visalia Times-Delta, the burn was estimated to have destroyed between 7,500 and 10,000 sequoias, or 10 to 14 percent of the mature giant sequoia population.
The numbers are only preliminary and the paper still needs to be peer-reviewed. Next week, scientists traverse the grounds to more closely examine the extent of the destruction.
A majority of the sequoias in Sequoia National Park had survived hundreds of years of fires and even rely on fire to survive. Sequoia seeds are trapped within waxy pine cones that use low-intensity fires to disperse the seeds and germinate. However, the far-ranging and high-intensity fires fueled by climate change in recent years, such as the Castle fire, are instead destroying the trees altogether.
“One-hundred years of fire suppression, combined with climate change-driven hotter droughts, have changed how fires burn in the southern Sierra and that change has been very bad for sequoia,” Brigham said.
The mass loss of sequoias could have devastating effects. In addition to the wildlife housed there, such as black bears and the grey fox, the sequoia’s root systems are responsible for the watershed farmers in San Joaquin Valley.
Worries of how future fires could worsen the already wide-ranging destruction still linger. The 2020 fire season was the West Coast’s worst in recent history, with California experiencing its largest fires ever reported. Fire season is now two to three months longer than it was a few decades ago.
“I have a vain hope that once we get out on the ground the situation won’t be as bad,” Brigham said. “But that’s hope, that’s not science.”
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