The giant sequoias, the world’s biggest trees, can live thousands of years. But there are only about 70 sequoia groves sprinkled through the Sierra Nevada, covering about 48,000 acres.
For context, more than four million acres of California burned in 2020. The wrong fires in the wrong places can wreak substantial destruction on the remaining sequoias in a relative instant.
Until the past few years, sequoias were considered practically immune to fire, and fire was a frequent guest in their groves, either from natural causes or from Indigenous land management. But through most of history, scientists said, fires were low-level affairs, occasionally clearing the forest floor and burning themselves out. Sequoias, with their thick bark and crowns that stood above all other conifers, stayed out of the fray.
Not anymore. Not after a century of aggressive fire suppression in California forests — now widely considered a fatal management error. A severe drought began in 2012, and a bark beetle infestation tagged along, killing huge swaths of forest. Those dead trees, many of them now falling, are kindling for the giant fires that California saw in 2020, and very likely will continue to see.
The stories are different for the Joshua trees and the redwoods. Joshua trees, not built to withstand fires, find themselves in habitats of invasive grasses that are burning more and more with the warming planet. The day that dry lightning started the fire in the Mojave National Preserve, killing more than a million Joshua trees, was the day that nearby Death Valley reached a record 130 degrees Fahrenheit, or about 54 Celsius.
Redwoods were long thought to be protected from big fires by their cool, foggy, coastal environment. This year ended any lingering sense of comfort, especially when so much of the Santa Cruz Mountains, including Big Basin state park, went up in flames. But redwoods have an ability to regenerate that the other species do not. They are harder to kill, though not impossible.
We are left to wonder what it means for the trees, for the state, for the future. You can read the story here.