Official: Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove will survive Washburn Fire

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Fun Fact. If you’ve heard about David Goggins, then you should know he’s out there right now digging trenches & stopping forest fires. Why is he there? Because it’s some of the hardest work on the planet.

With the Washburn Fire at 25% containment as of Monday, the famous giant sequoias of Yosemite National Park’s Mariposa Grove have seemingly been spared the worst, according to Yosemite forest ecologist and firefighter Garrett Dickman. And while the trees aren’t entirely out of the woods yet, so to speak, Dickman told SFGATE he’s optimistic that the beloved giants are poised to survive.

“The grove itself right now seems to be in pretty good shape,” said Dickman, who on Sunday surveyed the western part of the grove, which was also the eastern flank of the Washburn Fire. “I walked through all the parts that burned and did not see any mortality. … Some of the trees had some burn on them, but the level of burn was well within their ability to to handle it.”

Mariposa Grove is one of Yosemite’s prime attractions, with more than 500 mature giant sequoias stretching up to more than 200 feet high and dating back over 2,000 years. The grove was first set aside in 1864 by President Abraham Lincoln as part of California’s first state park.

Left: A sprinkler system wets the grizzly giant. Right: An air tanker passes above a giant sequoia during the Washburn Fire.

Courtesy of Garrett Dickman/NPS

Dickman confirmed that flames have not reached several of the most famous trees — the Grizzly Giant, the Clothespin Tree, the California Tunnel Tree and the Fallen Monarch. A sprinkler system was put in place to protect the Grizzly Giant and also the Galen Clark Tree, which was named for a 19th century conservationist and stands in the northeastern part of the grove.

“The Galen Clark Tree is most certainly going to be in the fire footprint,” Dickman said. “But based on the level of effort that firefighters were putting into it yesterday, I’m pretty confident it’s going to make it.”

What’s saved these trees, Dickman said, is simple: fuel reduction treatments.

“The really obvious takeaway is we’ve been preparing for this fire for 50 years. And that preparation is saving these trees,” he said. “We haven’t had to wrap trees or really put firefighters at tremendous risk. They’ve been able to engage safely because those fuel reduction treatments have proven to be so effective.”

The Washburn Fire emits a column of smoke from within Yosemite National Park near the Mariposa Grove.

Courtesy of Garrett Dickman/NPS

In recent years, Dickman has been on the front lines when it comes to giant sequoias and wildfire. He aided in last-minute preparations and surveyed the damage in Sequoia National Forest before and after the 2021 Windy Fire tore through Long Meadow and Starvation Creek groves, killing dozens of giant sequoias. The same year, he was also on the ground in Sequoia National Park after thousands of giant sequoias were incinerated by the KNP Complex Fire.

The difference between mass destruction of sequoias in those wilderness areas and the relatively intact Mariposa Grove is instructive, Dickman says, because it shows us that these ancient trees need our protection. That’s something new, he said.

Because of climate change, fires in California are igniting more often and burning hotter than ever before. And thanks to a century of fire suppression, combined with drought, wind events and a bark beetle epidemic, the fuel loads in California’s forests are sky high.

Before these conditions occurred, fires swept through the region’s forests with some regularity, but they didn’t usually burn hot enough to do long-term damage. “Sequoias don’t die very often,” Dickman said. “Their background mortality rate is about 0.1% per year.”

Firefighters prepare giant sequoias for fire by removing fuels from the bases of trees.

Courtesy of Garrett Dickman/NPS

There was a drought in the late 1200s, he said, in which some giant sequoias died in high severity fires. A few more died in 1986 and ’87 fires. But starting in 2015, things got much, much worse.

Some 100 giant sequoias died in and around Sequoia National Park during the Rough Fire, and then in 2017, two fires killed about 120 trees. In 2020, an estimated 7,500 to 10,600 large giant sequoias were killed by the Castle Fire, then the following year another 3% to 5% of the world’s population of giant sequoias died from the Windy and KNP Complex fires.

“So we go from fire almost not ever killing a giant sequoia to it just wiping out 20% in two years,” Dickman said.

While the situation in the Mariposa Grove is mostly under control, the Washburn Fire continues to burn hot just outside of its boundaries, where in certain areas, there hasn’t been fire on the ground for 130 years. In some places, the flames are up more than 200 feet high, and intense enough to lift tree debris hundreds of feet into the air. When the fire is that large, crews can’t get close, Dickman said.

Smoke from the Washburn Fire fills the sky around Yosemite National Park, in California, on Monday, July 11, 2022.

As temperatures climb and the weather becomes more dry, it’s difficult to predict what the fire will do next, and it could reenter the grove from the north. But suppression efforts are concentrated there, Dickman said, including large air tankers, helicopters and six hot shot crews.

Dickman is hopeful that the grove will remain largely unscathed, and that the magnificent trees will be on display for future generations. But he offered some advice for people who have never seen the world’s largest trees.

“I’m an eternal optimist, but there are things that are happening, they’re just moving faster than any of us imagined,” he said. “The thing I tell everybody is, go experience giant sequoias now.”


Yosemite’s Sequoias Survive Washburn Fire—and Might Benefit From It

Fire is still burning but has missed the Mariposa Grove, lessening risk of blazes reaching giant trees in future; ‘Now we will have an awful lot of protection’

Watch: Yosemite’s Sequoias Escape Harm From Washburn FirePlay video: Watch: Yosemite’s Sequoias Escape Harm From Washburn Fire

A grove of giant sequoia trees in Yosemite National Park survived a nearby wildfire that has been burning since last week. The blaze missed the grove and formed protective cushions around the trees. Photo: Nic Coury/AFP/Getty Images


Jim CarltonFollow

Updated July 13, 2022 2:43 pm ET

A grove of giant sequoias in California’s Yosemite National Park not only has escaped harm from a nearby wildfire this week, but also might benefit from it, according to forestry researchers and park officials.

The Washburn Fire broke out last Thursday and initially threatened the park’s Mariposa Grove, home to about 500 sequoias, some of which are thousands of years old. But in the past few days, the blaze has slowed to a crawl and steered around the grove, hitting areas intentionally burned by park crews in recent years to form a protective cushion around the sequoias.

At 3,772 acres, the Washburn Fire is a fraction of the size of mega-blazes up to a million acres that have burned in the West in the past few years.

“In the context of what we have seen, we’ll take this every day,” said Brandon Collins, an adjunct professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley and a U.S. Forest Service researcher.

The Washburn Fire has also burned a section of overgrown forest near the Mariposa Grove that had already been earmarked for prescribed fire, according to Garrett Dickman, Yosemite’s forest ecologist. As a result, the sequoias will be more protected from potentially destructive wildfires in the future, he said.

Note: Fire perimeter as of July 13

Sources: CalFire; National Park Service

“Now we will have an awful lot of protection around the grove that is going to last a while,” Mr. Dickman said.

While the fire is proving a lessening threat to the sequoias, incident commanders said Wednesday it is expected to remain active for the next several days as it chews through thick timber below the Mariposa Grove amid warm, dry conditions. They said crews would continue building containment lines where possible, and setting backfires, to help protect homes in a community up the canyon.

Smoke rose from the Washburn Fire in Yosemite National Park earlier this week.


Yosemite has been a pioneer in the use of prescribed fires, which help to thin forests in the West that became overgrown after decades in which officials suppressed blazes to lessen the chances they would burn populated areas.

Federal officials say they were nervous about the Washburn Fire because so many giant sequoias have been burned down in recent years. Known to grow only in California’s Sierra Nevada range, the trees are among the oldest and biggest on earth and adapted to withstand the region’s frequent wildfires. The sequoias are also a popular draw for tourists.

But as in much of the Western U.S., the Sierra forests have become so crowded with trees and brush that wildfires have regularly grown too large for the sequoias to survive. Over the past two years, roughly one-fifth of giant sequoias in the U.S. has been killed or is expected to die as a result of burn damage from fires, National Park Service officials estimate.

Many of the sequoias that have died were outside the most protected parts in Sequoia and Yosemite national parks, where officials have used prescribed fire to thin out the surrounding forest, said Zeke Lunder, a wildfire consultant in Chico, Calif. “The sequoias that burned were in areas of the national forest surrounded by thickets of cedar and other trees,” Mr. Lunder said.

Mr. Dickman said some of the groves that have been burned in the past are in remote areas where it is more difficult to use prescribed fire. He said the success in protecting the Mariposa Grove shows that more such burning is needed.

“The good part of this fire is it proves prescribed fire is an effective tool,” he said.

A sequoia in Yosemite National Park’s Mariposa Grove was shrouded in Washburn Fire smoke near Wawona, Calif., earlier this week.