KNP Complex fire spares General Sherman’s sequoia for the time being

Wrapped in fire-resistant aluminum, the trees of the giant forest of Sequoia National Park remained safe from the KNP complex fire on Friday, even as crews worked to prepare the grove of 2,000 trees against the flames that seem imminent.

Firefighters sounded the alarm on Thursday that the blaze – consisting of the Paradise and Complex fires – could reach the grove that includes the 275-foot General Sherman Tree during the day, a grim forecast that did not come true.

As growth appeared to be slowing, the lightning-triggered fires that started a week ago – and have burned 11,365 acres so far – have continued to rage without containment, sending out huge plumes of dense smoke on what is generally a popular tourist destination, fire officials said.

“He’s moving quite slowly because normally he would have run up this hill,” said Mark Garrett, spokesperson for the KNP complex fire. An inversion layer on the fire has not risen for several days, retaining the smoke and also suppressing the activity of the fire, he said.

The flames were less than a mile from the giant forest on Thursday, and Garrett said she had not yet reached the edge of the forest the next morning.

In an effort to prepare for the towering trees – which can rise above 250 feet and live for over 3,000 years – crews on Thursday wrapped some of their bases in fire-resistant aluminum material similar to paper. ‘aluminum, and images posted on social networks showed the majestic General Sherman with a metallic band around his huge trunk. The blanket-like envelope – also used on structures – is intended to protect trees from the embers rain and to reflect radiant heat.

Needles and debris were also removed from the grove, and teams planned to burn circles around their bases to further remove vegetation that could serve as fuel for the blaze.

Jon Wallace, operations section chief for the incident, said firefighters would likely go “very slowly, perhaps as slowly as a tree at a time,” in a recent briefing, adding: “[There’s] a lot of really methodical work is going on in this area to protect these giant trees.

Firefighters continued their work on Friday in anticipation of flames that could reach the grove in the coming days, building containment lines and determining logistics to bring water to the area when needed, according to Garrett.

More personnel are arriving as the blaze has been elevated to one of the state’s top firefighting priorities, including four other hot-fire teams, officials said.

“We’re really ready to attack this thing once it hits the Giant Forest,” Garrett said.

Giant sequoias are adapted to withstand forest fires and even take advantage of them to reproduce, with the flames heating their cones to release the seeds. But increasingly intense fires, fueled by drought and climate change, threaten to betray this ecological contract.

Last year’s castle fire wiped out 10% of the giant sequoias population, which equates to thousands of massive trees felled by the fierce blaze.

But there is cause for optimism for this particular operation, officials said. The grove has been subjected to numerous prescribed burns since the 1960s and has one of the oldest prescribed burns on the West Coast, according to Wallace.

It’s a tactic where officials effectively clear much of the understory and bloom that can be used as fuel for the fires – work that helped protect the 150,000-acre giant forest from fire in 2015.

“So that area probably won’t have quite the intensity of the fire that we have in other areas,” Wallace said at the recent briefing.

To the south, in the Sequoia National Forest, Windy’s fire – which has already burned down in a grove of giant redwoods – has reached 6,849 acres without containment, triggering evacuation orders and warnings for nearby communities threatened by the ‘fire.

The Tulare County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday ordered the evacuation of Johnsondale and nearby Camp Whitsett. Warnings are in effect for the communities of Ponderosa and Quaking Aspen, and there are road closures in the area.

Lighting lit the Windy Fire Thursday on the Tule River Indian Reservation. It quickly grew in the National Forest, and earlier this week had crept into the Peyrone Redwood Grove, Giant Redwood National Monument, and threatening other groves.

Teams attempted to examine the Peyrone Grove – located on the northern perimeter of the blaze – for potential damage, but the location amid steep, inaccessible terrain prevented close scrutiny. Officials said it could take several days to complete a preliminary assessment.

Times editor Hayley Smith contributed to this report.

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