California firefighters gained ground this week in the battle against a wildfire that poses a threat to a grove of giant sequoias and a small community in Yosemite National Park.
The Washburn Fire on the western flank of the Sierra Nevada had scorched about 4.2 square miles (10.9 square kilometers) but was 22 percent contained as of Monday night, according to an incident update.
The fire was a threat to more than 500 mature sequoias in the park’s Mariposa Grove and the nearby community of Wawona, which has been evacuated.
Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley have been protected since President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation in 1864.
A sprinkler system was set up within the grove to maintain moisture, and there were no reports of severe damage to any named trees, including the 3,000-year-old Grizzly Giant. “Fortunately, the Mariposa Grove has a long history of prescribed burning and studies have shown that these efforts reduce the impacts of high-severity unwanted fire,” a National Park Service statement said.
A heat advisory was issued for the Central Valley sprawling below the Sierra while up in the fire area, a high temperature of 96 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) was recorded for the village of Wawona, where hundreds of tourists and residents were forced to evacuate last Friday.
“Fortunately, there has not been any erratic winds that have affected fire behavior,” fire information officer Marc Peebles said earlier in the day. “We do have the high pressure that’s over the top of the fire which is causing the increase in temperatures. However, we do get a decent amount of humidity at night which moderates fire behavior which allows our night shift firefighters to do good work.”
Know before you go
This area in the southern portion of Yosemite—which is an additional 30 miles south of heavily touristed Yosemite Valley—was closed to visitors, but the rest of the national park remained open as of press time. A smoky haze stretched northwest to Mather and Groveland over the weekend. As of Tuesday, the Valley had significantly clearer skies and guided hikes took place.
If you have an upcoming trip to Yosemite National Park, check nps.gov/yose for the latest alerts. You can also call a wilderness ranger for questions about activities in the park—say, hiking Half Dome or backpacking—at 209-372-0826.
The plight of the sequoias
The giant sequoias, native in only about 70 groves spread along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, were once considered impervious to flames but have become increasingly vulnerable as wildfires, fueled by a buildup of undergrowth from a century of fire suppression and the impact of drought exacerbated by climate change, have become more intense and destructive.
Lightning-sparked wildfires over the past two years have killed up to a fifth of the estimated 75,000 large sequoias, which are the biggest trees by volume and a major draw for tourists.
There was no obvious natural spark for the fire that broke out Thursday next to the park’s Washburn Trail. Smoke was reported by visitors walking in the grove.
A fierce windstorm ripped through the grove more than a year ago and toppled 15 giant sequoias, along with countless other trees. The downed trees, along with massive numbers of pines killed by bark beetles, provided ample fuel for the flames.
So far in 2022, over 35,000 wildfires have burned nearly 4.7 million acres (1.9 million hectares) in the United States, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, well above average for both wildfires and acres burned.