Collectively, the KNP Complex and Windy fires burned over 185,000 acres in California — damaging at least 28 giant sequoia groves. And it's now believed that around 5% of the world's giant sequoias died as a result.
This year's wildfire season saw the state's largest single-source wildfire ever recorded, entire towns wiped out by advancing blazes, and the trunks of giant sequoias wrapped in aluminum foil to protect them from the worst of the fire damage. Though these massive sequoia trees — with some examples measuring over 250 feet tall and having lived well over 2,500 years — are evolutionarily designed to survive wildfire burns, “extraordinary measures” were taken in 2021 to protect them from an unusually severe fire season.
But even those efforts weren't enough to spare thousands of trees from complete destruction.
"If we had lost 20% of the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, Yellowstone—or the Statue of Liberty, for that matter—the American people would expect our government to spring to immediate action." - League's Joanna Nelson at today's presser on giant sequoia loss. pic.twitter.com/bTKcsTHkCf— savetheredwoods (@savetheredwoods) November 19, 2021
In a new report published by the National Parks Service (NPS), the government agency found that as much as 5% of the world's giant sequoia trees perished as a result of the KNP Complex and Windy fires; somewhere between 2,261 and 3,637 large sequoias have died (or will soon die) as a result of those two blazes.
When combined with data collected over the past two years, NPS estimates nearly 19% of the planet’s known giant sequoias might have been killed due to two severe wildfire seasons — something that "just a few years ago" would have been unfathomable.
“Just a few years ago, it was considered unprecedented to lose a handful of giant sequoia to wildfire in a season, but now we’re losing thousands," says Sam Hodder, president and CEO of Save the Redwoods League — an SF-based nonprofit whose mission is to protect and restore coast redwood and giant sequoia trees — in a news release. "Those of us who have drawn so much inspiration from these timeless forests need to commit right now to stopping this tragic loss, to taking immediate conservation action in the Sierra to ensure a future for these trees."
Hodder, however, is hopeful that it's not too late to steer the worst of this "environmental emergency" around.
"We know that a regimen of measures, such as restoration thinning and prescribed burning, to eliminate the unnatural build-up of vegetation that is fueling these fires, will save them," Hodder continues. "We know this because this is exactly what saved the General Sherman Tree and the other iconic giant sequoia in Giant Forest. The problem is that all too few of the groves have experienced that treatment, and they are tinderboxes waiting for a spark.”
The giant sequoia is listed as an endangered species with fewer than 80,000 trees remaining in the world. 2020's Castle Fire, alone, claimed 10,000 specimens — meaning that as many as 14,000 giant sequoias might have died as a result of wildfires in less than two years.
Top Photo: Getty Images/Scott_Walton