PORTERVILLE, Calif. A wildfire blazing in California’s Sequoia National Forest grew to more than 38,000 acres Tuesday, sending flames licking toward ancient stands of towering Giant Sequoia trees, officials said.Some 1,000 people have already been evacuated from the heavily forested region in California’s Sierra mountains, about 140 miles northeast of Los Angeles, as firefighters struggled to control a blaze that threatens some of the oldest trees on earth. “We are trying to do the best we can with our efforts, but it’s been a very difficult battle due to the terrain and conditions,” said Karen Guillemin, a fire information officer with the California Department of Forestry. “The fire has got a rapid rate of spread and is erratic, the conditions which can lead to firestorms.”
Despite the efforts of almost 1,000 firefighters, the blaze was completely uncontained as of late Tuesday and high temperatures, low humidity and gusty winds made the outlook grim, Guillemin said. The fire, which officials believe was sparked by park visitors on Sunday, was raging in steep, rocky terrain about 1.5 miles from the Giant Sequoia National Monument, which contains about half of the world’s remaining stands of the huge trees, fire information officer Norm Carpenter said. Firefighters using helicopters and bulldozers fought to clear heavy brush and timber in the forest as three separate fire fronts crackled through the dry timberland, sending plumes of smoke 30,000 feet in the air. “We have 10 air tankers on it, but it is putting out so much smoke they cannot fly through” said Mary Chislock, the public affairs manager for the park. “A lot of us have never seen conditions like this before in our careers.”
Officials said one important stand of Giant Sequoias, known as the Trail of 100 Giants, appeared to be out of danger as the fire took a new direction early Tuesday. But several other groves of the ancient trees which can live to be more than 3,000 years old and grow more than 250 feet tall were still in peril as the fire surged eastward.Giant Sequoias’ thick barks make them resistant to wildfires, and many have survived dozens of forest blazes during their hundreds of years in existence. But Chislock said the intensity of the current fire would put their survival skills to the test.
“We have been doing fuel treatments (removing underbrush) around those groves for protection for the last eight to 10 years. We are hoping if it does get into those stands it will slow down enough that they will survive,” she said, “but there is no way to test for this. This is Mother Nature in full bloom.” The Sequoia National Forest is one of the most active wildfire areas in California, with about 9,400 acres burning annually. The Giant Sequoia National Monument, which President Bill Clinton established in 2000, consists of about 328,000 acres of federal land established to provide protection to the trees. Fire officials said Tuesday the wildfire did not appear to threaten the General Sherman Tree, which measures 30 feet across at its base and stands 275 feet tall and is recognized as the largest living thing, by volume, in the world.
The California fire came as the western United States faces one of the worst wildfire seasons on record. Already, major blazes have scorched Colorado and Arizona, and fire control officials warn that more is to come as the region struggles through a widespread drought. Some 3.7 million acres have already burned this year, compared with a 10-year average for the period of 1.7 million acres and 2.9 million acres in 2000, the worst fire season in recent memory. Rain helped quiet some of the worst fires in southern Oregon overnight, and fire crews expected to increase their control from 40 percent across 97,000 blackened acres of arid high desert country. “The night crews were able to do quite a bit of work,” said John Zapell, a fire spokesman. “Our outlook is really good. The rain really knocked the fire down.”
In the rugged backcountry near Washington state’s Lake Chelan, the fires have grown to nearly 24,000 acres, but containment increased to 30 percent from 10 percent overnight, bolstered in large part by lakefronts.