WILDFIRES continue to tear across a drought-plagued and parched Sierra Nevada in eastern California and to threaten the natural home of the giant sequoia tree (Sequoiadendron giganteum).

In spite of having been given the name giant sequoia, this is not the tallest tree in the world. That status goes to the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), although when assessed by biomass volume the giant sequoia comes out on top.

‘Paradise’ and ‘Colony’ fires have combined and coalesced to form the so-called KNP fire complex. Started by lightning strikes and moving with lightning speed, they consumed 3,000 acres of terrain in just seven days after igniting on 9 September. The Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks are now in the line of fire.

Flames fuelled by dry biomass that has accumulated during successive drought years are now threatening more of the Sierra Nevada’s giant sequoias. Last year’s Castle Fire, which burned in the same area, destroyed up to 10,000 of these massive trees, representing one tenth of the population. Among the giant sequoias threatened is ‘General Sherman’, the largest tree in the world by volume, towering at 84 m tall and 2,500 years old. The bole boasts a diameter of 11 m and a volume of almost 1,500 cubic metres.

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California’s giant sequoias have evolved to cope with fire through the development of a thick and resilient, protective bark – but not fires of such intensity, ascribed to the effects of climate warming.

According to the National Park Service, these recent wildfire events represent a ‘tipping point’ for the giant sequoia and the mixed conifer forests growing in the Sierra Nevada. According to US Drought Monitor, 90 per cent of California is experiencing ‘extreme drought’. This current year’s fire season has already broken all records, despite there being some months left.