US takes emergency action to protect sequoias from wildfires

The US Forest Service will accelerate undergrowth clearing projects to protect the world’s largest trees from the increasing threat of wildfires.

LOS ANGELES — The US Forest Service said Friday it is taking emergency action to save giant sequoias by accelerating projects that could begin within weeks to clear undergrowth to protect the world’s largest trees from the mounting threat protect against forest fires.

The move to bypass some environmental assessments could shave years off the normal permitting process required to chop down smaller trees in national forests and use intentionally lit, low-intensity fires to reduce dense scrub that has helped rage stoking wildfires that have killed up to 20% of all large sequoias in the last two years.

“Without urgent action, wildfires could wipe out countless more iconic giant sequoias,” Forest Service chief Randy Moore said in a statement. “This immediate action to reduce fuel consumption before a wildfire occurs will protect unburned giant sequoia groves from the risks of severe wildfires.”

The trees, the world’s largest by volume, are under threat like never before. More than a century of aggressive firefighting has left forests with dense vegetation, fallen logs and millions of dead trees killed by bark beetles that have fueled raging infernos that have been exacerbated by drought and exacerbated by climate change.

The Forest Service’s announcement is among a series of efforts being made to save the species found only on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains of central California. Most of the approximately 70 groves are clustered around Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and some extend into and north of Yosemite National Park.

Sequoia National Park, which is operated by the Department of the Interior and is not subject to the emergency response, is considering a novel and controversial plan to plant Sequoia seedlings where large trees have been obliterated by fire.

The Save Our Sequoias (SOS) Act, which also includes a provision to expedite environmental assessments like the forest roster, was recently introduced by a bipartisan group of congressmen including Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, whose district includes redwoods.

The group welcomed Moore’s announcement on Friday but said in a statement more needs to be done to facilitate forest thinning.

“Today’s action by the Forest Service is an important step forward for Giant Sequoias, but without addressing other barriers to protecting these groves, this emergency will only continue,” the group said. “It’s time to codify this action by establishing a truly comprehensive solution to fireproof every grove in California through the SOS Act and save our redwoods.”

The work, which is due to begin as early as this summer in 12 groves spread across Sequoia National Forest and Sierra National Forest, would cost $21 million to remove so-called ladder fuels made from scrub, deadwood and smaller trees that allow fires to spread upwards and torch the canopies of redwoods that can reach over 300 feet tall.

The plan calls for felling smaller trees and vegetation and using prescribed fires — intentionally lit and supervised by firefighters in wet conditions — to clear the rotting needles, sticks and logs that are piling up on the forest floor.

Some environmental groups have criticized forest thinning as an excuse for commercial logging.

Ara Marderosian, CEO of Sequoia ForestKeeper Group, called the announcement a “well-orchestrated PR campaign.”

He said it doesn’t take into account how logging could make wildfires worse and increase carbon emissions, which will worsen the climate crisis.

“The rapid thinning doesn’t take into account that roads and deforested areas … allow for wind-driven fires because the opening in the canopy creates more airflow that increases the speed and intensity of wildfires,” he said.

Rob York, a professor and cooperative advisory specialist at University of California, Berkeley-managed forests, said the forest service’s plan can be helpful but needs extensive follow-up.

“For me, it represents a triage approach to dealing with the urgent threat to giant sequoias,” York said in an email. “Treatments must continue with often prescribed firings to truly restore and protect the groves over the long term.”

The mighty sequoia, protected by thick bark and with its foliage typically soaring high above the flames, was once considered almost flammable.

The trees even thrive with the occasional low-intensity blaze — of the kind historically Native Americans were allowed to light or burn — which douse trees competing for sunlight and water. The heat of the flames opens cones and allows the seeds to spread.

RELATED: Redwood Sequoia Grizzly Giant threatened by fire in Yosemite

But fires in recent years have shown that while the trees can live to be over 3,000 years old, they are not immortal and greater measures may be needed to protect them.

In a fire last year in Sequoia National Park, firefighters wrapped the most famous trees in protective film and used flame retardants in the canopy.

Earlier this month, as fires threatened the Mariposa grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park, firefighters deployed sprinklers.

Flames burned into the grove – the first wildfire in more than a century – but there was no major damage. A park forest ecologist credited the controlled burns with protecting the 500 large trees. US takes emergency action to protect sequoias from wildfires

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