Yosemite fire grows and threatens firefighting airplanes as debris flies into the air

The fire started near the famed Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias, some of the world’s largest trees

Ethan Freedman
Climate Reporter, New York
Monday 11 July 2022 22:59 BST
Yosemite fire grows as crews try to protect iconic giant sequoias

The Washburn Fire in Yosemite National Park has grown to 2,340 acres and continues to threaten some of the park’s iconic giant sequoia trees, as firefighters battled the spreading blazes over the weekend.

The intense wildfire is also sending debris way up into the skies — one firefighting pilot reported that his plane was almost hit with a tree branch that fell from above the plane.

Evacuations have been ordered for the area around the Mariposa Grove of sequoias, including the small community and campground in Wawona, California. Most of the park remains open, including the iconic Yosemite Valley, home to rock faces like El Capitan and Half Dome.

The fire, which started on Thursday, grew to around 70 acres within 24 hours before spreading rapidly over the weekend. As of Monday afternoon, the perimeter was 25 per cent contained.

Officials say hot and dry conditions are likely to continue over the week, and that the flames will keep spreading.

Some of the crews working to contain the blaze are in aircrafts, which is where the close call with a flying tree branch occured.

Twitter user @Rob_on_sisukas posted some of the radio chatter overheard from firefighting crews on Saturday. In it, you can hear a pilot describe the incident.

“Hey, just want to let you know a branch went right over the top of us, pretty good size. Probably 50 feet above us, coming down and fell right in between Tanker 103 and myself,” the pilot is heard saying.

“If we keep seeing that, we might have to knock it off. I don’t want to take the chance of busting a window on an airplane or hurting an aircraft for this,” the pilot later adds.

Intense fires can cause an rapid onrush of air as smoke and heat soar upwards, which can even sometimes be powerful enough to grab objects like tree branches and shoot them into the sky, notes Wildfire Today.

Firefighters are working to protect the Mariposa Grove of sequoias, home to around 500 of the famous trees. Efforts include removing potential fuel around the trees and spraying water through sprinklers near the trees, official reports note.

A video posted by Yosemite Fire and Aviation Management shows sprinklers deployed around the Grizzly Giant, one of the park’s larger and more famous trees.

The Mariposa Grove was part of the original protections given to the area in 1864 by President Abraham Lincoln, reports the Associated Press. President Teddy Roosevelt once posed for a photo with a group that included Sierra Club founder John Muir next to the Grizzly Giant.

Giant sequoias, also known as giant redwoods, are the world’s largest tree species and native only to the Sierra Nevada mountains. The species is adapted well to fire, which is a natural part of the ecosystem and even helps clear the ground to allow new sequoia seedlings to sprout, according to the National Parks Service (NPS).

But recently, some devastating fires have destroyed huge swaths of sequoias — such as 2020’s Castle Fire, which killed thousands of the trees in the southern Sierra Nevada.

Part of the reason for the destruction experienced by such a fire-adapted tree species was the sheer intensity of these fires — some of these areas hadn’t burned in decades, NPS notes, allowing a lot of potential fuel like downed wood to accumulate.

Giant sequoias are ranked as “Endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, with fires and fire suppression noted as threats.

In the Mariposa Grove area of Yosemite, fire managers have done intentional burnings to reduce this risk, officials note. Currently, there are no reports of serious damage to any of the Mariposa sequoias with a name, like the Grizzly Giant, AP reports.

But fire risk is also increasing in the Sierra Nevada due to the climate crisis. Some of the past few years have seen devastating fires in the region, such as last year’s Caldor Fire that burned an area the size of Dallas just outside Lake Tahoe.

According to data from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a California state agency, the 2020 and 2021 fire seasons were by far some of the worst on record for the Sierras.

Between 1920 and 2010, the region only once saw more than 300,000 acres burn, the data shows — but in both 2020 and 2021, the region saw over 1.1 million acres under flames.

Fire risk is in the mountain range is likely connected to warmer temperatures, a 2021 study found. And as the climate crisis sends temperatures even higher, that risk could increase even further.

That study showed that under a worst-case scenario for future greenhouse gas emissions, the amount of land burned in the Sierra Nevada could increase by around 59 per cent by the 2040s.

If current global emissions policies and targets are reached, the world can likely still avoid that scenario — but even moderate further warming could likely still increase fire risk in California and other parts of the western US.

A recent report noted that over half of all properties in the lower 48 states had at least some risk of burning in wildfires over the next 30 year — a risk concentrated in the West and increasing as drought intensifies and temperatures rise with the climate crisis.

And the country’s fire season has gotten off to a strong start this year. As of Monday, over 4.8 million acres — nearly the size Wales — had burned over the US since 1 January, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).

That’s about double the 10-year average of 2.4 million acres. States like Arizona, New Mexico and Utah have seen intense blazes — while over 2.3 million acres has burned in Alaska alone so far this year, NIFC notes. That state is experiencing one of the most intense wildfire seasons in recent memory.

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