Wildfire burning near the Mariposa Grove. Via @YosemiteNPS Twitter.
Wildfire burning near the Mariposa Grove. Via @YosemiteNPS Twitter.

Wildfire threatens Yosemite’s iconic sequoia trees

Climate change-fueled wildfire threatens Yosemite National Park’s beloved sequoia trees.

Firefighters are still attempting to save our nation’s beloved sequoia trees, as the Washburn wildfire in Yosemite National Park rages on.

The national park has served as a haven for the largest grove of giant sequoias since its opening in 1890, but from last Friday to this Monday, the fire — which was first reported on July 7th — swelled from 250 to over 2,000 acres. 

At one point, this beloved tree species was thought to be fire resistant. But due to climate change, that is no longer the case. 

Mark Cochrane, a wildfire and climate change expert and environmental science professor at the University of Maryland, says that the wildfires, themselves, are not unusual per se— the sequoias have scars and burn marks indicating fire damage from past centuries. 

He says, what is unusual, however, is that due to modern forest management, wildfires have been steered away from the park. Forest management practices combined with climate change, mean that we will see more severe fires and the potential for the once fire-resistant trees to become additional fuel for the flames. 

“We’ve set climate change in motion, and we can’t turn it off.”

“When we’re under these very severe conditions like we have right now, it becomes an extreme fire that even those very large trees can be vulnerable to, since the flames rise so far up,” Cochrane told Currently.

In the last two years alone, climate change-fueled fires have destroyed one-fifth of the remaining sequoias on the western part of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Those dead trees become fuel for the fire, perpetuating a deadly cycle.

“The problem is that we have more severe fires more frequently. As these things burn more and more, parks don’t become inaccessible, but there will be more periods like this,” Cochrane said.​​ “We’ve set [climate change] in motion, and we can’t turn it off. We can do things to try and not make it any worse or as quick.”

Right now, over 400 firefighters are actively working to steer the fire away from the park. The crews have installed a sprinkler system, for example, to keep the tree trunks moist and dampen the ground around them. They’ve also wrapped the iconic Galen Clark cabin in a protective, fire-resistant foil and issued an evacuation order.

And all is not lost, according to Cochrane, as the sequoias will eventually regenerate, though it will take years to get the groves back to what they once were. Sometimes, as a new habitat regrows there is potential for it to be even better for wildlife.

But as the human-caused climate crisis continues, the drought across the western U.S. worsens, making sequoias even more susceptible to threats from wildfires that are blazing through the region. 

“Fires have always been here, and now because of forest management and the climate, they will be an even bigger part of life. We just have to come up with better ways to deal with them,” Cochrane said.

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