Hundreds of giant sequoias killed in Windy Fire

Resource advisors, burn severity maps indicate hundreds of giant sequoias were killed and others severely burned may not survive

PORTERVILLE – Hundreds of the Sequoia National Forest’s most treasured trees met their fate during the weeks long Windy Fire that started in September.

According to the National Park Service, the 97,528 acre fire burned into 11 giant sequoia groves. Five are entirely within Sequoia National Forest, two in the Tule River Indian Reservation, and four are shared across agency boundaries. The Forest Service is working to determine the impacts of the fire in the groves managed by the Forest Service. Initial assessments, based on observations by resource advisors and burn severity maps, indicate the fire killed hundreds of giant sequoias. Many more were heavily torched and may or may not survive.

“Within the high severity burned areas, most of the giant sequoias were burned and killed. In moderate severity areas, some giant sequoias may survive while those in low severity burned areas are likely to survive the Windy Fire,” stated Forest Ecosystem Manager Gretchen Fitzgerald. The Sequoia National Forest will be partnering with researchers and local experts to monitor the groves and determine the impacts of the Windy and Castle Fires over the next year.

While most firefighters were battling the blaze and trying to contain the fire fully, a special task force of firefighters and resource specialists targeted the protection of giant sequoia trees where possible. In some groves, they constructed firelines surrounding the grove or individual groups of trees, set up sprinkler systems, and removed ladder fuels from around the grove and individual trees in advance of the fire. After the fire burned through the groves, additional efforts were made to further reduce the fire’s impact on giant sequoia trees by extinguishing hot spots in and around the trees.

During initial observations, it was apparent that giant sequoia trees treated before the Windy Fire swept through the groves were more likely to survive. Those with duff and woody debris scraped away from their trunks, especially near burn marks, were less susceptible in most cases. In the Starvation Complex, four out of six giant sequoia trees, treated before the fire reached them, survived. An estimated 116 trees not accessible before the fire were killed. Similar conditions were found in the Long Meadow Grove, where more than a decade of fuels reduction efforts helped save the giant sequoia trees along the Trail of 100 Giants.

Tree mortality has been widely used as a measure of fire severity in conifer forests in North America. Historically, there is substantial tree survival where the stand has been exposed to low-severity or mixed-severity fire regimes. Although the thresholds are subjective, over story mortality below approximately 30% is considered low severity, 30 to 80% is considered moderate severity, and greater than 80% is considered high severity

“Recent fires highlight the need for restoration in the giant sequoia groves. By reducing fuels through prescribed burning and other density-reduction treatments, the likelihood of future large, high-severity fires can be reduced,” stated Forest Supervisor Teresa Benson. “The Giant Sequoia National Monument Management Plan requires protection, preservation, and restoration of giant sequoias through management activities. We will continue to work with our partners, Tule River Indian Reservation, National Park Service, Save the Redwoods League, and CAL FIRE on best management practices to protect and restore our giant sequoia groves.”

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