The U.S. Forest Service said Friday it would take emergency measures, including clearing low vegetation that can fuel fires and other measures, to protect groves of giant sequoias threatened by wildfires.
Since 2015, wildfires have been ravaging the groves of California. About a fifth of all giant sequoias have been destroyed in the past two years, the Forest Service said.
All but five of the 37 groves have been at least partially burned in recent wildfires. Many giant monarchs, the largest redwoods in the grove, have been killed. Experts have estimated in 2021 that there are about 75,000 giant sequoias left.
“Without urgent action, wildfires could wipe out countless more iconic giant sequoias,” Forest Service chief Randy Moore said. “We can and must do more to protect the giant sequoias using all the tools and flexibilities at our disposal. This emergency action to reduce fuels before a wildfire occurs will protect groves of unburned giant sequoias from the risk of high-severity wildfires.
The Forest Service said it hopes to complete prevention projects by 2023 or 2024.
The plan, which involves clearing scale fuels, or the needles, grass and moss that can spread fires, as well as hand-cutting small trees, would help protect 12 groves of giant redwoods that cover over 13,300 acres. Other steps to take include mechanical removal of some trees, moving decaying material away from the base of giant sequoias, and lighting controlled fires.
Protecting the nearly 12,000 acres of Sequoia National Forest will cost about $15 million, which will come from the recently enacted infrastructure law. Work on eight groves could begin this summer, the Forest Service said, and work on three more groves could begin in the fall.
Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, both California Democrats, said they support the emergency action plan.
“The groves of giant sequoias are a California icon, but tragically, nearly 20% of all mature giant sequoias have burned down in the past five years,” the senators wrote in a joint statement. “We must do all we can to protect these trees, many of which are thousands of years old, from the threat of wildfires.”
Between 2015 and 2021, more than 85% of the area of all giant sequoia groves in the Sierra Nevada burned in wildfires, up from 25% in the previous century, the Park Service said. The increase in damage is likely related to climate change, the service said, and the lack of frequent fires that could clear brush.
Authorities and firefighters took action this month to help save a famous giant sequoia in Yosemite National Park known as the Grizzly Giant, which is over 2,000 years old and 200 feet tall.
The tree was threatened by the Washburn Fire, which led to evacuation orders for Wawona, Calif., and burned more than 4,800 acres. The fire was 79% contained Saturday afternoon, fire officials said.
To help protect the Grizzly Giant, authorities cleared debris from the base of the tree, felled smaller trees and set up a sprinkler system that intermittently pumped up to 20 gallons of water per minute. to help increase humidity at the base of the tree.
In other recent fires, firefighters wrapped trees in fire retardant sheeting, pumped foam over them, and covered them with pink fire retardant.