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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Wildfire in Yosemite National Park imperils century-old trees

By Christine Chung

A wildfire in Yosemite National Park that has spread over 1,500 acres is threatening a grove of hundreds of giant sequoia trees, including some that are centuries old.

The fire, now entering its fourth day and fueled by timber and brush, is active in the Mariposa Grove, the largest and most popular of the park’s three giant sequoia clusters. The grove is home to some of the longest-living and tallest trees in the world, including a tree named the Grizzly Giant that is more than 200 feet tall.

Nancy Phillipe, a Yosemite fire information spokesperson, said the fire was 0% contained and that there was not yet any estimate of damage to the sequoia trees.

On Sunday, thick columns of smoke lingered in the park and beyond it. Mandatory evacuation orders for the grove and Wawona, a small community within the park, remained in place. Communication infrastructure and numerous residences were threatened, the National Interagency Fire Center reported.

Yuli Gotsev, a marketing manager for The Redwoods in Yosemite, which manages about 120 vacation rentals in the park, said the company had evacuated dozens of guests and staff members from Wawona on Friday afternoon after receiving evacuation orders from authorities.

Although the winds were pushing the fire away from the community, he said he saw smoke rising in the distance. “It’s not our first wildfire,” he added. “We have some kind of a reflex that we developed over the years.”

The firefighting effort has involved nearly a dozen helicopters and more than 360 firefighters.

The cause of the fire is under investigation. Wildfires are growing in size and severity in the western United States. Experts say climate change is elevating the risks of wildfires.

Wawona Road is closed from the park’s south entrance to Henness Ridge Road, and Mariposa Grove is closed until further notice. All other areas of the park remain open, the Park Service said.

Multiple heat warnings and advisories were issued Sunday for a large portion of Northern California. Fire activity is expected to continue over the next few days, when temperatures in the area could reach triple digits.

Emergency responders are “proactively protecting” the giant trees by removing fuels such as dead trees and using sprinkler systems to increase humidity on the ground, the Yosemite fire management office said Sunday. Firefighters were also using bulldozers to clear vegetation that was feeding the wildfire, The Associated Press reported.

With thick fibrous bark that acts as insulation and towering branches that can sometimes avoid flames, sequoias are adapted to survive less intense fires. But in recent years, wildfires have become far more destructive to giant sequoia trees, which grow on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, the National Park Service said.

From 2015 to 2021, more than 85% of the acreage of all giant sequoia groves across the Sierra Nevada burned in wildfires, compared with 25% in the previous century, according to the Park Service.

Over the weekend, smoke obscured some of Yosemite’s most striking vistas.

On Saturday, a tour guide pointed to a model of the topography at the Tunnel View, a popular roadside overlook 20 miles north of Wawona, and told a group of visitors that was what they could have seen in front of them were it not for the fire. The mountains at the front were in view, but the farthest ones were obscured by the haze.

Even beyond the park’s perimeter, smoke was thick on the horizon.

“It’s definitely a new normal that everyone is getting used to,” Jenna Boozer Yip, who lives in Oakhurst, about 18 miles south of the fire, said Sunday.

She said that many, frustrated with California’s relentless fire seasons, had moved. But, she added, “The people who have stayed are getting comfortable with knowing they have to evacuate.”

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