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Weather hampers bid to save sequoias

Red flag fire alert issued in California by The Associated Press | September 20, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.
Members of the media walk among sequoia trees in Lost Grove as the KNP Complex Fire burns about 15 miles away on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Sequoia National Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

THREE RIVERS, Calif. -- Hot, dry weather Sunday added to the challenges facing California firefighters who are battling to keep flames from driving farther into a grove of ancient sequoias, where the base of the world's largest tree has been wrapped in protective foil.

Fire officials warned that stronger winds were contributing to "critical fire conditions" in the area of the KNP Complex, two lightning-sparked blazes that merged on the western side of Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning through Sunday, saying wind gusts and lower humidity posed the risk of creating conditions for rapid wildfire spread.

The fires forced the evacuation of the park last week, along with parts of Three Rivers, a foothill community of about 2,500 people. Crews have been bulldozing a line between the fire and the community.

More than 34 square miles of forest land has been blackened.

The National Park Service said Friday that flames had reached the westernmost tip of the Giant Forest, scorching a group of sequoias known as the "Four Guardsmen" that mark the entrance to the grove of 2,000 trees.

Firefighters wrapped the base of the General Sherman Tree, along with other trees in the Giant Forest, in a type of aluminum that can withstand high heat. It wasn't immediately known how the Four Guardsmen, which received the same treatment, had fared, fire spokeswoman Katy Hooper said Saturday.

The General Sherman Tree is the largest in the world by volume, at 52,508 cubic feet, according to the National Park Service. It towers 275 feet high and has a circumference of 103 feet at ground level.

Firefighters who were wrapping the base of the sequoias in foil and sweeping leaves and needles from the forest floor around the trees had to flee from the danger on Friday, Hooper said. They returned Saturday, when conditions improved, to continue the work and start a strategic fire along Generals Highway to protect the Giant Forest grove, Hooper said.

Giant sequoias are adapted to fire, which can help them thrive by releasing seeds from their cones and creating clearings that allow young sequoias to grow. But the intensity of these fires can overwhelm the trees.

"Once you get fire burning inside the tree, that will result in mortality," said Jon Wallace, the operations section chief for the KNP Complex.

The fires already have burned into several groves containing trees as tall as 200 feet and as old as 2,000 years.

To the south, the Windy Fire grew to 28 square miles on the Tule River Indian Reservation and in Giant Sequoia National Monument, where it has burned into the Peyrone grove of sequoias and threatens others.

The fire also had reached Long Meadow Grove, where the Trail of 100 Giant Sequoias is a national monument. Fire officials haven't yet been able to determine how much damage was done to the groves, which are in remote areas.

Historic drought tied to climate change is making wildfires harder to fight. Scientists say climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.

More than 7,000 wildfires in California this year have damaged or destroyed more than 3,000 homes and other buildings and torched well over 3,000 square miles of land, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

A fire engine drives past sequoia trees in Lost Grove as the KNP Complex Fire burns about 15 miles away on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Sequoia National Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
A fire engine drives past sequoia trees in Lost Grove as the KNP Complex Fire burns about 15 miles away on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Sequoia National Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Mark Garrett, a fire information officer, examines a sequoia tree during a media tour of Lost Grove as the KNP Complex Fire burns about 15 miles away on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Sequoia National Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Mark Garrett, a fire information officer, examines a sequoia tree during a media tour of Lost Grove as the KNP Complex Fire burns about 15 miles away on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Sequoia National Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Sequoia trees stand in Lost Grove along Generals Highway as the KNP Complex Fire burns about 15 miles away on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Sequoia National Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Sequoia trees stand in Lost Grove along Generals Highway as the KNP Complex Fire burns about 15 miles away on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Sequoia National Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Sequoia trees stand in Lost Grove along Generals Highway as the KNP Complex Fire burns about 15 miles away on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Sequoia National Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Sequoia trees stand in Lost Grove along Generals Highway as the KNP Complex Fire burns about 15 miles away on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Sequoia National Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
En la imagen, vista de un bosque de secuoyas en Lost Grove, en la autopista de los Generales, a 15 millas del incendio KNP Complex, el 17 de septiembre de 2021, en el Parque Nacional de las Secuoyas, en California. (AP Foto/Noah Berger)
En la imagen, vista de un bosque de secuoyas en Lost Grove, en la autopista de los Generales, a 15 millas del incendio KNP Complex, el 17 de septiembre de 2021, en el Parque Nacional de las Secuoyas, en California. (AP Foto/Noah Berger)
Members of the media look at sequoia trees in Lost Grove as the KNP Complex Fire burns about 15 miles away on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Sequoia National Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Members of the media look at sequoia trees in Lost Grove as the KNP Complex Fire burns about 15 miles away on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Sequoia National Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Sequoia trees stand in Lost Grove along Generals Highway as the KNP Complex Fire burns about 15 miles away on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Sequoia National Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Sequoia trees stand in Lost Grove along Generals Highway as the KNP Complex Fire burns about 15 miles away on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Sequoia National Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Sequoia trees stand in Lost Grove along Generals Highway as the KNP Complex Fire burns about 15 miles away on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Sequoia National Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Sequoia trees stand in Lost Grove along Generals Highway as the KNP Complex Fire burns about 15 miles away on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Sequoia National Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

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