Northern California’s Calaveras Big Trees State Park, home to the majestic giant sequoias known as “the Orphans,” is facing concerns over the survival of one of the towering trees. A prescribed fire intended to protect the sequoias instead caused significant damage, roasting the trees’ massive trunks and killing most of their canopies.
The incident has sparked anger and fear within the mountain community, eroding confidence in the park’s controlled burn practices, a crucial tool for mitigating severe wildfires in an era of extreme drought and climate change.
Local residents are outraged by the way the burn was conducted and accuse park officials of inadequate preparation. This has resulted in skepticism about the park’s ability to carry out a planned larger prescribed burn in the fall.
Park officials deny the charges, asserting that they took all necessary precautions and that the trees’ vulnerability may have been amplified by years of drought and the subsequent lack of soil moisture.
Calaveras Big Trees State Park, nestled within the western Sierra Nevada between Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe, is the sole location in California where giant sequoias grow. The park has been grappling with vegetation overgrowth, stemming from the suppression of naturally occurring fires ignited by lightning and Indigenous practices that began during the Gold Rush era.
The prescribed burns, part of a five-year, $7 million plan aimed to reduce dead vegetation, impede the regeneration of Pacific dogwood, and create patches of mineral soil for sequoia seedlings to thrive. Instead, the Orphans sustained substantial damage from the burn, although it took several months for the extent of the harm to become apparent. The burn only affected the Orphans, while nearby mature giant sequoias were relatively unscathed.
State park officials are uncertain about the cause of the damage, but it appears that the Orphans were affected by radiant heat rather than catching fire directly. While one of the Orphans is likely to survive, the other, with fewer remaining green needles, may perish. If that happens, it will be left in place to provide wildlife habitat.
The news of the damage quickly spread, and residents expressed their concern and held a gathering to pray for the trees. The controversy surrounding the burn has raised questions about the park’s forest management and the potential risks to nearby communities in the face of fast-moving wildfires. Some experts worry that the outcry may hinder efforts to protect other ancient groves, highlighting the critical role of “good fire” in removing dense vegetation that could fuel devastating wildfires.
Park officials maintain that the burn was overall beneficial, as it cleared away vegetation prone to high-severity fires and promoted the growth of baby sequoias. But the incident has left residents anxious about the park’s overgrown condition and the potential danger it poses to nearby areas.
Despite the controversy, park officials remain committed to their mission. While the spring burn was canceled due to dry conditions, preparations are underway for the fall burn, including the clearance of dead material and the hiring of contractors to assist with log removal and mastication. The park acknowledges the importance of completing the work promptly and is striving to ensure its successful execution