NPS begins new program sending park staff out to remote areas of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks to reduce vegetation, fuels, adds a layer of safely for thousand year old sequoia trees
SEQUOIA AND KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARK – The National Parks Service is trying to recover from some of the worst fires the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks have seen, by beginning more in depth prevention tactics.
Friday Oct. 14 marked the start of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks’ initiation of emergency actions aimed at protecting the giant sequoias from the threats posed by high-intensity wildfires. Park staff will work to remove and reduce dense vegetation and other potential fire fuel sources in and around 11 at risk sequoia groves. Many of the groves are in remote locations. It will begin with manual thinning by hand and later burning piles of cut vegetation and dead wood. The goal is to eventually get to a point where prescribed burns can be used in areas initially thinned by hand.
“In the midst of a new era of extreme fire behavior fueled by climate change, this work is an important step towards ensuring the long term viability of the ancient giant sequoias and protecting them from future losses,” Chuck Sams, director of the National Park Service said. “We have the tools to protect this iconic species and will deploy them as needed.”
On Friday, 28 individuals began working in Redwood Meadows which is about 10 miles into the Sequoia National Park. The crew is composed of individuals from the Arrowhead Hotshots, field crew members from Kaweah Wildland Fire Module-Crew 91 and a few other single resource individuals. They are beginning with manual fuel reduction and thinning of excess vegetation. The trimmings from thinning will be burned on site in piles, or as part of a prescribed burn, or a combination of the two.
Lighting of burn piles won’t be addressed for a few more operational periods according to public affairs specialist with the National Parks Service (NPS) Rebecca Paterson. As the project continues, park staff will provide more details for individual components of the project, including when smoke impacts are anticipated. This work will help protect many of the more remote giant sequoias by reducing the amount of hazardous fuel in thus-far untreated groves.
Additional work may include possible replanting of six sequoia groves that burned at high severity in 2020 and 2021 and have been determined to be at risk for total failure of natural regeneration. Assessments of these areas are currently underway and the earliest this work might begin is fall of 2023. Replanting is something the parks have not done before, mainly because it has not been necessary according to Paterson.
Between 2020 and 2021, 13% to 19% of the world’s population of large giant sequoias were killed by three large wildfires – the Castle, Windy and KNP Complex Fires. Several thousand of those trees were in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. According to Paterson, the concept of losing major amounts of trees was not on NPS’ radar until 2015 during the Ruff Fire. Paterson said before the Ruff Fire, they did not have any records of more than a handful of sequoias dying in a single fire event.
“After the rough fire, we thought, ‘okay, a couple of 100 trees died, that’s really serious,’ and then 2020 and 2021 came around and yeah, 10s of 1000s of trees were killed in those fires,” Paterson said. “It really made us aware that we are working in a completely different arena, as far as the potential for extreme fire behavior, extremely intense and severe fire effects that just leave matchstick forests in sequoia groves.”
While giant sequoias require frequent low- to moderate-intensity fire for healthy growth and regeneration, these fires burned so intensely that they overwhelmed even these great survivors’ natural defenses. Some areas were so affected that no mature living trees remained to reseed the ground.
“The fires of 2020 and 2021 underscored the importance of deploying all tools at our disposal to protect sequoia trees,” Clay Jordan, superintendent of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks said. “Park managers are assessing the appropriate fuels reduction tools for each grove on a case-by-case basis.”
Most of these catastrophically burned areas had not experienced fire in recent years, and as a result, carried heavy fuel loads that caused fires to burn more intensely. Paterson said they anticipate this particular program to exist in some form for two to three years. Because fire ecology is ongoing, they will assess every year and determine where to go from there.
“[The amount of fuel] is an important component of [the recent fires’ intensity],” Paterson said. “I think an equally important component of it is climate change. It’s driving hotter, longer droughts and we’re seeing very, very dry conditions out there, which are also driving these huge fires. So it’s kind of a perfect storm.”
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks have a prescribed burning program that dates back more than 50 years. In the past, the NPS has focused mainly on medium- to high-use areas, including 10 sequoia groves, to protect the spectacular natural ecosystems as well as human safety and infrastructure. These decades of work have proven to be effective in areas such as the Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park and Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park.
“In the event of a wildfire, human life and property protection [are a] priority with natural resources coming second,” Paterson said. “What’s different about this project is it is specifically focused on Giant Sequoias wherever they’re found in the park, and often that’s actually in really remote areas of the parks.”
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks lie side by side in the southern Sierra Nevada in Central California. They serve as a prime example of nature’s size, beauty and diversity. Nearly 2 million visitors from across the U.S. and the world visit these parks for the world’s largest trees (by volume), grand mountains, rugged foothills, deep canyons, vast caverns, the highest point in the lower 48 states and more. Learn more at http://www.nps.gov/seki