Intense Wildfires Kill Thousands of Sequoia Trees, Greatly Endangering the Species

Teresa Jones ‘24

As recent wildfires sweep through California, the treasured thousand-year-old sequoia trees in the Sequoia National Park are in danger. Just recently, the intense Castle Fire, which burned through the Sierra Nevada, killed up to 10,600 large sequoia trees—about 14% of the total population [2].

Interestingly, sequoia trees need fire for survival. Their life cycle depends on the heat of low-intensity fires to release new seeds. Throughout its thousand-year life, a sequoia tree can survive dozens of small fires. Their tall trunks and low amount of foliage provides natural protection against wildfires, greatly reducing the damage that the fires may cause [1].

Sequoia trees release their seeds within the heat of a fire. Typically, after a “normal” fire, the forest floor will be filled with little green sequoia seedlings rising out of the ashes of the fire. However, reachers in the Alder Creek grove, where the Castle Fire was the most intense, only found a dozen seedlings. Furthermore, around 85% of seedlings usually die within the first year of life, a percentage that isn’t helped by the increased drought in the area as a result of climate change. Reachers are now concerned that the dead Sequoias will not be replaced by new seedlings [2].

Fortunately, all hope is not lost for the sequoias yet. Researchers are fervently working to save the remaining trees. Since sequoia trees take thousands of years to reach full maturity, planting new trees has been put off as a backup plan in dealing with the immediate threat posed by the fires. Efforts to save the remaining trees have become the center focus [2]. Firefighters are employing every tactic they can think of to stop the damage to the Giant Sequoias. These include wrapping fire-resistant material around the base of trees, installing sprinklers, and clearing vegetation manually from the groves [1].

Sequoia National Park has used prescribed burns since the 1960s to prevent overgrowth in its forests. However, the recent years saw new constraints being placed on the prescribed burns. In 2020, the Pacific fisher, a mink-like creature, became listed as an endangered species [2]. The species lives in the same habitat as the sequoia trees, meaning those areas are restricted from planned fires during the spring.

Prescribed burns are difficult in the summer due to air quality concerns and lack of personnel. Most people who are in charge of these planned burns are firefighters whose skills are needed elsewhere during the summer—fighting the ever prevalent wildfires.

There are many conservation efforts underway to save these beautiful trees. This includes research. Research is inevitably expensive and is therefore financially limited. The Redwood and Climate Change initiative is fighting for research and a comprehensive climate adaptation plan to save the Redwood forest, including the sequoias [3].

Ultimately though, saving the beautiful sequoia trees comes down to our actions. Christy Brigham, head of resource management and science for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks states that, “We can do better. People love these trees. So I just hope we can take that love and translate it into immediate action to protect the groves and long term action to limit climate change and its impacts” [2].