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Study: California fires killed 10% of world’s redwood trees


At least a tenth of the world’s mature giant sequoias were destroyed by a California wildfire that raged across the southern Sierra Nevada last year, a draft study said.

SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, Calif. At least one-tenth of the world’s mature giant sequoias were destroyed by a single California wildfire rippling through the southern Sierra Nevada last year, according to a draft report prepared by National Park Service scientists.

The Visalia Times-Delta newspaper obtained a copy of the report that describes the devastating destruction from the Castle Fire, which burned 273 square miles (707 sq km) of wood in Sequoia National Park.

Researchers used satellite imagery and modeling from previous fires to determine that 7,500 to 10,000 redwoods were destroyed in the fires. This equates to 10% to 14% of the world’s mature giant sequoia population, the newspaper said.

“I cannot stress enough how mind-boggling it is for all of us. These trees have been alive for thousands of years. They are already in place,” said Christy Brigham, head of resource management and science at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Dozens have survived wildfires.”

Forest managers said the consequences of losing large numbers of giant sequoias could be felt for decades. Redwood forests are among the most efficient forests in the world at removing and storing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The groves also provide important habitat for native wildlife and help protect the watersheds that supply farms and communities on the San Joaquin Valley floor.

Brigham, lead author of the study, cautioned that the numbers are preliminary and the research paper has yet to be reviewed. Starting next week, the team of scientists will visit the groves where the fires have caused the most damage for the first time since the ash solidified.

“I have a vain hope that once we get on the ground the situation won’t be as bad, but that’s hope – it’s not science,” she said.

How much damage has been done to one of the world’s most treasured trees is remarkable because the sequoias themselves are incredibly well adapted to fire, the newspaper said. Old-growth trees – some of which are over 2,000 years old and 250 feet (76 m) high – require fire to burst their pine cones and reproduce.

“How a hundred years of fire suppression combined with climate change-induced hot droughts has fueled fires in the southern Sierra and this change has been very bad for Sequoia,” Brigham said.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon have conducted controlled burning since the 1960s, averaging about a thousand acres per year. Brigham estimates that the park would need to burn about 30 times that number to bring the forest back to a healthy state.

On August 19, a fire broke out at the Castle in the Golden Trout Wilderness amid a flash of lightning. Shotgun fire, a much smaller fire burning nearby, was discovered shortly afterwards, and both were renamed the Sequoia Complex.

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