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Washburn Fire in Yosemite Threatens Redwoods in Mariposa Grove

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A wildfire near the southern portion of Yosemite National Park’s Mariposa Grove has become the latest fire to threaten the world’s largest trees, which have been repeatedly endangered in recent years as climate change increases the intensity of fires.

The forest, home to more than 500 mature giant redwoods, was closed Thursday after visitors reported seeing smoke from the Washburn Fire near a trail. About 1,600 people—almost all of them tourists— evacuated the next day from the nearby community of Wawona, California, and the campground.

A wildfire in Yosemite National Park threatens more than 500 redwoods. (Video: The Washington Post)

No injuries, destroyed structures or critical damage to the redwoods had been reported Saturday morning, said Nancy Phillipe, a spokeswoman for Yosemite fire information. All of the trees mentioned, including the 209-foot Grizzly Giant and the Bachelor and Three Graces, remained safe.

“That’s one of the top priorities, protecting that forest and the whole history that goes with it,” Phillipe said.

Sequoia trees, which are only found in the Sierra Nevada and can live for about 3,000 years, have been increasingly threatened by worsening fires in recent summers. Although accustomed to frequent wildfires, three fires have killed 13 to 19 percent of all redwoods since 2020. Natural resource experts expect another large-scale die-off this year.

The world’s largest trees struggle to survive climate change

The Washburn Fire poses yet another threat. The origin is being investigated and Phillipe said there were no obvious weather-related causes.

Firefighters used a variety of tools to protect the forest Saturday as the uncontrolled fire spread to more than 700 acres, Phillipe said. Motorbikes sprayed the redwoods with hoses and built handlines, a type of firing line made with hand tools, to create fuel breaks. Crews also covered redwoods in fireproof aluminum foil.

From 2021: Fire threatens trees in Sequoia National Park. Fireproof blankets are the defense.

The predicted high temperatures and low humidity for this weekend will complicate firefighting efforts, already hampered by numerous fallen trees, Phillipe said. Trees destroyed by bark beetles, killed by climate change-induced drought and felled by a major storm serve as fuel for flames.

Prescription burns performed periodically at Mariposa Grove in recent years have helped slow the progress of unwanted fires, Phillipe said. In areas prone to wildfires, controlled burns dissipate fuel and create space for firefighters to work.

Mariposa Grove, located near the south entrance to Yosemite, closed in 2015 and reopened three years later after a $40 million restoration project — the largest in the park’s history. The initiative restored redwood habitat, rearranged roads and added shuttle service from the arrival area.

After all that work, Phillipe said, park workers aren’t giving up on protecting the forest.

“We’re putting out this fire,” she said. “We’re doing everything we can to get it out.”

Last year, trees in California’s Sequoia National Park were endangered by the KNP Complex Fire when the lightning-driven fire came dangerously close to the 275-foot General Sherman, the largest tree in the world by volume. The 2020 castle fire burned a third of the region’s sequoia groves.

Nearly 23,000 acres have been scorched by wildfires in California this year.

People who never saw themselves as a threat to climate change are waking up to floods and fires. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)


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