Saving the sequoias: Yosemite wildfire threatens millennia-old trees

WATCH: Yosemite National Park rushes to save one of the park's most well-known attractions — a tree called the Grizzly Giant.

Firefighters are battling a growing wildfire that is threatening a grove of ancient giant sequoia trees in California’s Yosemite National Park.

The blaze doubled in size in only a day, expanding from around 800 acres on Saturday to 1,600 acres on Sunday. CBS reports that as of early Monday morning, the Washburn Fire has grown to cover more than 2,000 acres and the wildfire remains uncontained.

On difficult terrain, just under 400 firefighters are working to protect the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, the largest grove of the iconic trees in Yosemite, as well as a nearby mountain town, campground and hotel.

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The Mariposa Grove along the Washburn Trail houses more than 500 giant sequoias, which can grow to more than 75 metres tall and can live for thousands of years. The Mariposa Grove was the first federally protected scenic natural area in the U.S., with then-president Abraham Lincoln legislating it for “public use, resort, and recreation,” in 1864.

None of the grove’s named trees have faced significant damage so far, including the Grizzly Giant, a tree that is estimated to be around 3,000 years old.

The Washburn Fire began on July 7, as reported by visitors to the park, and has been fuelled by timber and brush in the area near the lower part of the grove.

To protect the famous trees, firefighters have set up a sprinkler system within the grove to keep the trunks of the giant sequoias wet. Officials hope that the steady spray of water will keep the blaze at bay.

Park officials had previously conducted prescribed burns in the area to clear out flammable materials in order to prevent wildfires but this region of the park is prone to keeping fires burning. A large number of trees died in a three-year period beginning in 2013, creating lots of dry timber that is easy to ignite.

As of Monday morning, no injuries or deaths have been reported as a result of the wildfire but disaster nearly occurred on Sunday when firefighters on board a plane narrowly avoided airborne debris that was kicked up by winds in the fire’s smoke column, according to a spokesperson who spoke with Reuters.

More than 1,600 visitors to Yosemite National Park have been ordered to evacuate at the peak of the summer tourism season from a nearby community, campground and historic hotel. The southern entrance to the park has been closed but visitors can still travel to Yosemite Valley through the western entrance.

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While the exact cause of the Washburn Fire has not been determined, experts warn that climate change has caused an increased number of — and more severe — droughts that threaten sequoias with more frequent wildfires.

Only around 75,000 sequoias still stand in California but up to a fifth of the remaining population have been burned in wildfires that occurred in the last two years.

Between 2015 and 2021, 85 per cent of all giant sequoia groves were destroyed by wildfires, according to National Park Service officials. In the preceding 100 years, only 25 per cent of giant sequoias were consumed by fire.

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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