Wildfires rage in Sequoia National park and forest, sending flames into grove of giant trees

A pair of lightning-sparked fires that took hold in rugged terrain in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks exploded over the weekend, while another blaze to the south burned into a grove of giant sequoia trees, sending smoke billowing above popular tourist destinations and forcing closures in the area. All three fires ignited Thursday after a series of thunderstorms rolled in, sending more than 130 lighting strikes into the southern Sierra Nevada mountains and sparking the Paradise and Colony fires in the two parks. Collectively called the KNP Complex, the fires have since seared 1,037 acres with no containment, forcing the closure of the Sequoia National Park while the Kings Canyon side remained open, according to Mark Ruggiero, a public information officer for the national parks. A separate blaze, dubbed the Windy fire, had seared 974 acres in the adjoining Sequoia National Forest. It had burned into the Peyrone Sequoia grove, part of the Giant Sequoia National Monument, according to Kate Kramer, a spokesperson for the fire. In an effort to tamp down fire risk, all national forests in California — including Sequoia — were closed last month, with closures slated to last at least through Sept. 17. Flames were in the perimeter of the towering trees — which can rise more than 250 feet and live for 3,000 years — but it wasn’t immediately known whether the fire had felled any, Kramer said, adding, “The fire is already into the grove.” The national parks also contain groves of giant sequoias, including the 275-foot tall General Sherman tree, considered the largest tree in the world by volume. Although the fires are not near the General Sherman tree or any of the other groves of giant redwoods, they are considered a “threat” to the sequoias, Ruggiero said. “The potential is there, with the current climate and how fires have been burning these last two years,” he added. Last year’s Castle fire destroyed hundreds of towering sequoias. Ruggiero said the giants were naturally fire-adaptive trees and need fire to reproduce. But the ferocity of recent fires is actually stymying growth. “The fires are burning so intense,” Ruggiero said, “that it’s really affecting the sequoia population.” The Paradise fire, burning south of the Buckeye Flat Campground, ballooned to 807 acres while the Colony fire, west of Crystal Cave Road, grew to 230 acres. Given the challenging terrain — with the Paradise fire raging at an elevation of 5,000 feet — crews attacked it from the air, officials said. “We’ve been painting the mountains red with retardant the last couple of days,” Clay Jordan, park superintendent, said during a community meeting. “So we hit that very aggressively.” Mandatory evacuations were issued for the Silver City and Cabin Cove area on Mineral King Road, with the the Exeter Veterans Memorial Building serving as a temporary evacuation point, the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office said. The fires are also threatening the foothills community of Three Rivers, portions of which are under an evacuation warning. The Windy fire ignited in the Tule River Indian Reservation before pushing into the national forest, where it’s rapidly spreading south and east through dead timber and other dry vegetation, Kramer said. Rain dropped by the recent storms is gone, and it’s getting drier and hotter again — conditions that promote fire growth. Like the KNP Complex to the north, the Windy fire has been difficult to attack, with its location amid difficult terrain and intense fire behavior. The flames are backing downhill, and there are roll-outs — when a burning log tumbles down, Kramer said.

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