Yosemite National Park’s legendary giant sequoias have avoided suffering significant damage for now, officials said, as fire crews work to steer a growing wildfire away from the towering trees.
The 2,044-acre Washburn Fire doubled in size over the weekend, encroaching upon Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove, home to more than 500 giant sequoias.
“The fire has entered the grove,” response spokesperson Robbie Johnson told CNN Sunday evening. “But the good news is because of prescribed burns and clearing out material on the ground, it’s clear in the Mariposa Grove.”
The sequoias in the grove, which was established in 1857, can tower to heights above 250 feet, or more than 20 stories tall. The trees existed long before the park’s inception, with some thought to be older than 2,000 years.
Fire management teams deployed protective measures from both the ground and air over the weekend, including installing a sprinkler system to dampen the ground around the park’s 209-foot Grizzly Giant sequoia.
Fire crews also removed dead trees, logs and undergrowth near the sequoias and carried out a prescribed burn to clear a protective “doughnut hole” around the area, Johnson said.
A structure inside the perimeter, the historic Galen Clark cabin, was wrapped in protective foil, according to Scott Gediman, Yosemite’s chief spokesperson.
The cabin belonged to the first “guardian” of Yosemite, who convinced lawmakers to include Mariposa Grove as a protected area, according to the National Park Service. The grove in the Yosemite Valley was first set aside for public use by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864, eventually becoming a national park in 1890, park service records show.
The Washburn Fire was first reported July 7 and has drawn a crew of 545 fire personnel to the steep and densely wooded area, according to fire management site InciWeb. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
Part of the blaze has been successfully contained at its origin point near Mariposa Grove, but the fire has continued to stretch northeast, officials say.
On Sunday, the fire was burning about five miles south of the community of Wawona, which could be threatened by “spotting,” which occurs when embers travel through the air and ignite other trees, Gediman explained. An evacuation order was issued Friday for the community and the park’s Wawona campground.
Hot and dry conditions will continue through the rest of the week, and the fire is expected to continue actively spreading, though its intensity may be reduced from scars left by previous fires, according to InciWeb.
The south entrance of the park is closed to visitors and park officials have evacuated and closed Mariposa Grove and the park’s southern Wawona area. The rest of the park remains open, but visitors should be mindful of how the ongoing fire will impact their visit, Gediman told CNN.
“Now that the south entrance – one of the busiest entrances – is closed, that means the other entrances are extremely busy. So we have long lines of vehicles waiting to get in. So we ask people to be patient,” he told CNN on Sunday.
Gediman also warned visitors of potentially unhealthy air quality in some areas of the park, including Yosemite Valley, due to the smoke.
“We’re asking people to just be responsible and if someone has, for example, respiratory issues, to be very careful in hiking and choosing their activities,” he said.
A San Francisco area air quality agency encouraged residents Sunday to take precautions such as staying indoors and closing windows to stay away from smoke drifting into the region.
“Smoke from the Washburn Fire is forecast to be transported into the Bay Area and is expected to impact the North and East Bay regions,” the Bay Area Air Quality Management District said. However, the district stressed “pollutant levels are not expected to exceed the federal health standard.”
While fire is a natural part of Yosemite’s ecosystem, severe burns like the Washburn Fire threaten the forest, according to Gediman.
“Fire is important, in fact it’s critical for giant sequoias for them to have the seeds come out of the cones, to regenerate the soil, provide habitat for animals. … But it’s these high intensity fires that are causing the damage,” he said, citing the devastating Creek Fire which consumed nearly 400,000 acres of California’s Sierra National Forest area for several months in 2020.
As the climate crisis has driven increasing numbers of wildfires in the western US in recent years, national parks have been battered by the flames, while also suffering from other extreme events like flooding and drought. Climate scientists are concerned the crisis could make the parks inaccessible for humans and uninhabitable for wildlife if global fossil fuel emissions are not significantly reduced.
Last week, officials in southern California announced the region is bracing for a particularly challenging summer and fall of wildfires, as a prolonged drought has left vegetation brittle and dry.
Fire officials in the state warn California’s fire season, which typically extends from late June through the fall, is becoming a year-round event, even as some firefighting crews experience worker shortages.