It’s nearly midnight in October 2021, and I’m watching the flames creep up the bent bark of a giant redwood thicker than most bridge pylons. I walk along a sidewalk-width line of fire a few miles south of the entrance to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, which descends a ridge at the northern end of the KNP complex, a snarling 88,307-acre blaze spreading toward the highest concentration of giant sequoias on the planet, a grove dubbed Redwood Canyon. Complex is the term used when two or more fires merge together, and this one had previously burned near Giant Forest and Muir Grove, the centerpieces of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The KNP complex threatened to repeat the destruction caused by the castle fire, this time in the most famous groves in the world.
Joe Suarez, superintendent of the Arrowhead Hotshots, a team based in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, invited me and two cameramen to film tonight’s operation, because no one had ever filmed blazing redwoods, burning from the ground. Like Robert Capa’s famous photo of a loyalist soldier shot to the heart during the Spanish Civil War, perhaps the sight of 200ft flames engulfing a majestic giant will inspire the public and politicians to make the changes needed to save the oldest trees in the park. .
All around me, hotshots hold drip torches and lean on hand tools, standing with their backs to the flames and dreaming aloud of the trips they’ll take when fire season ends. This is a backburn, a controlled fire set to reduce the amount of fuel in the path of a progressing wildfire. At the moment, this wildfire is in the canyon below. Watching the fire run through the redwoods is like watching the water return to a desert arroyo that hasn’t been wet in a hundred years. After a century of aggressive fire suppression, the groves are parched.
The largest redwoods are over 300 feet tall and 100 feet around at the base. Their bark is two feet thick. The oldest have lived for over 3,000 years and resemble them, with gnarled limbs the size of mature sugar pines.
Redwood cones look like candies. They contain 200 seeds each. When a fire burns at the base of the tree, the waxy sap that holds the cones tightly melts and the seeds slip out, floating in the smoke by the tens of thousands. Sometimes every seed lands in flames and all that genetic material cooks. Occasionally a few or even a large number of seeds will land where the fire has cleared the ground to expose mineral soil. When the heat has cooled and the winter rains have returned, redwood seedlings push through the ash and grow faster than almost any of their competitors. They are like weeds. After a few fires, they become thick like carpets. You cannot put a boot between the rods. Yet most small trees die sooner rather than later, because for the decade or two after the fire, the climate is too hot, or too dry, or too cold, or there is not enough light, or another fire breaks through and sets fire to the babies before any sapling has grown tall enough to escape the low flames or has developed bark thick enough to withstand the heat of a fire. But for an individual monarch to fulfill its obligation to the species, all it takes is that in its 2,000 or 3,000 year lifespan, just one of the millions of seeds it produces reaches maturity, which takes about 300 years. The redwoods’ survival strategy is a low-probability proposition, one that relies on realities that are changing faster than the species can adapt.
Scientists have recently observed that, intentionally or not, redwoods regulate fire intensity by increasing the humidity in the grove. They release some of the 500 gallons of water they suck up through their roots daily into the atmosphere through their stomata, the foliage cells that trees use to exchange water for carbon dioxide. Previously, a fire burned hot under some trees and cooler under others. It used to be that the odds were good that on that special day when a fire finally broke out, at least one monarch in a grove was going to be lucky.
The seeds are falling from the giant now. Some may germinate very well in the spring (and then die due to drought), but they may germinate under the dead monarchs that produced them. If the humidity is higher in the grove tonight, it may not matter. Suddenly there is a roar, like the sound of a plane taking off. The world vibrates orange and a young redwood disappears behind a 150-foot curtain of flames. The sniper closest to me cranes his neck, tracking the confetti of sparks drifting upwards. The embers briefly mingle with the stars before floating through the canyon below.
Garrett wasn’t with me at the KNP compound. He was working on the Windy Fire, a 97,000 acre fire burning at the southern end of the redwood range. He was assessing whether firefighters had a chance of saving any of the 11 groves threatened by the Windy. At one point, he and his crew drove past the fire to Starvation Creek Grove, where they cut smaller sugar pines and white firs under the giants. They had only cleared four redwoods when a fire chief radioed Garrett and told him to “get out now.” The fire had jumped its containment lines; the crew returned to camp with a wall of flame flanking the truck.
When Garrett returned to Starvation Creek a week later, the fire head had moved. Fly ash-twisted dust devils through smoldering oaks. Using a chainsaw, he cut and moved the trees that had fallen on the road. Long before he reached the grove, he saw black sequoias looming against the blue horizon, smoke billowing from their tops. Of the 160 trees in the grove, only the four felled by his team had survived. The others were like chalk outlines of the police, Garrett said. “No needles. No cones. Branches gone.