Hundreds of giant sequoias may have perished after the raging KNP Complex Fire raced through Redwood Mountain Grove, considered to be the Earth’s largest, as well as the birthplace of modern prescribed burning science.

High-severity fire burned through the grove early Monday, creating its own weather — a massive fire cloud that generated 50 mph gusts and blew singed sequoia needles to nearby Hume Lake in Sequoia National Forest in California.

Scientists prepping the grove ahead of the KNP’s arrival had tagged 400 sequoias as “high-risk” because of the abundance of dead trees in the area and the steep, uphill terrain – conditions that have resulted in blazes capable of mortally wounding the famed giants, experts said.

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Crews from the air had intended to place fire-resistant gel at the tops of the sequoia trees, which are the most vulnerable, but conditions proved unsafe, so the operation was canceled. The heat mapping that was done in the following days shows that the fire produced enough heat to cause crown fires which have killed thousands of southern Sierra Nevada sequoia.

The fire’s run through Redwood Mountain Grove comes weeks after the KNP Complex initially sparked, just as firefighters had begun to achieve significant containment around the 130-square-mile blaze in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. 

Christy Brigham (parks’ chief scientist) said, “There is so much uncertainty that I am trying not to think about.” “When I saw the smoke plume for the first time, I was overwhelmed.

Brigham believes there are some encouraging signs despite the fact that the stand was subject to prescribed burning three years ago. Photos taken at Generals Highway also show mature sequoias sporting healthy “broccoli” tops.

Brigham stated that the fate of the Redwood Mountain Grove will not be known until firefighters are able to access it, which should happen sometime within the next week.

She knows from heat mapping that more than 80 percent of the huge 2,600-acre stands burned. However, just because an area was burned doesn’t necessarily mean that every tree has been felled.

Fire officials have reported that the KNP Complex has been reduced to 85,000 acres. Containment dropped by half after the wildfire torched the mountain grove early Monday.

Professor Harold Biswell demonstrates a controlled burn in 1969 at UC Berkeley's Whitaker Forest, located within the Redwood Mountain Grove. The research was key in shifting National Park Service fire management policy.

The birthplace of the modern prescribed fire

The Redwood Mountain Grove in California is considered the birthplace of modern fire ecology by scientists who study the role of fire on the natural landscape. Researchers used the grove as a laboratory to demonstrate the beneficial effects of controlled burning, a then-novel idea, to an audience of skeptical foresters in the 60s and 70s.

Brigham stated that Redwood Mountain, in the west United States was the epicenter of change and openness towards fire management. That’s the place where the new era in fire ecology emerged for parks services.

Why did Redwood Mountain Grove become a poster child for prescribed fire?

Brigham says the answer is complex.

She said, “It is not that we forgot and it wasn’t that there were evil intentions.” “But all the factors have to be right to continue to have a successful prescribed fire program like we have had in Giant Forest and Grant Grove.”

It takes decades to maintain a prescribed fire in sequoia trees. A grove cannot be burned and left alone. After an initial burn, crews must return every 15 years to maintain the groves and keep them healthy – just like a home, Brigham says.

“If your funding and staffing or public support wavers, then you miss a few. Scientists say that when fuel accumulates, it makes the burn unsafe. Add on top of that climate change, and the tree mortality from climate change, and the second year of drought … then your window where it’s safe to do a prescribed burn goes away.”

Even with these challenges, Sequoia & Kings Canyon continue to run the best prescribed burning program in the nation. Since 2000, six burns took place in Redwood Mountain Grove. This continues the tradition of her predecessors. 

Operations Section Chief Jon Wallace, left, and Ed Christopher walk near the General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park on Wednesday, September 22, 2021.

Native American practices:

The KNP’s effect on the historical grove without these prescribed fires would be worse. Brigham believes that the fire will be beneficial to many areas of the grove.

Sequoia is one of the best-adapted species to fire. They require low- or moderate-intensity heat in order to burn their pinecones, and remove competitors. Research performed in Redwood Mountain showed that lightning-caused wildfires touched sequoia groves every 12 to 16 years, on average. 

You can watch:Caldor Fire left behind scorched trees

These giants are, however, no match for mega-blazes in the West, with their two-foot thick bark and crowns that rise hundreds of yards above the ground. These fires are unlike any the Sierra has experienced in millennia; experts say they are fueled by a century of poor forest management and worsened by climate change.

Indigenous tribes that called the Sierra Nevada home long before white settlers arrived understood fire’s role in the landscape and practiced cultural burning, keeping the forest healthy. NPS used local tribes to help with some of its earliest prescribed burns.

Tule River Indian Tribe cultural specialist Lauren McDarment speaks to the media during a tour in the Trail of 100 Giants on Monday, October 4, 2021.

Tribal representatives said it has taken science decades to catch up with the traditional knowledge that their ancestors had understood and put into practice for centuries.

Lauren McDarment from the Tule River Indian Tribe in southern Sierra said, “It is something we carry as an honour.” This is…

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