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California wildfires threaten giant redwoods

A pair of lightning-triggered fires that set in on rough terrain in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks exploded over the weekend, forcing evacuations and park closures, while firefighters have gained ground from the massive Dixie and Caldor fires burning to the north.

The Paradise and Colony fires in the 1,037-acre national parks without containment sent smoke rising over the popular tourist destination and forced the closure of much of Sequoia National Park while that the Kings Canyon side has remained open, according to Mark Ruggiero, a public information officer for the national parks. The Generals Highway, which connects the two parks, is closed and authorities have said visitors should depart via Highway 180.

The fires, collectively referred to as the KNP complex, were started after a series of thunderstorms that swept through the region on Thursday, launching around 132 lightning bolts over the rugged terrain of the southern Sierra Nevada mountains. Drought-stricken trees damaged by bark beetles are fueling the blaze, officials said.

The parks contain towering giant redwood groves, including the 275-foot-tall General Sherman tree, considered the world’s tallest tree by volume. Although the fires are not near the General Sherman tree or any of the other giant groves of trees, they are considered a “threat” to the redwoods, Ruggiero said.

“The potential is there, with the current climate and the way the fires have burned over the past two years,” he added. Last year’s castle fire destroyed hundreds of towering redwoods.

Ruggiero said the giants are naturally fire-adaptive trees and need fire to reproduce. But the ferocity of the recent fires is actually blocking growth. “The fires are burning so intense,” said Ruggiero, “that it’s really affecting the redwood population.”

The Paradise Fire, which burned south of Buckeye Flat Campground, reached 807 acres while the Colony Fire, west of Crystal Cave Road, reached 230 acres. Given the difficult terrain – with the Paradise fire raging at an altitude of 5,000 feet – crews attacked it from the air, officials said.

“We have painted the mountains red with a timer for the past few days,” park superintendent Clay Jordan said at a community meeting. “So we hit that very aggressively.”

Mandatory evacuations have been issued for the Silver City and Cabin Cove area on Mineral King Road, the Exeter Veterans Memorial Building serving as a temporary evacuation point, the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office said.

The fires also threaten the Three Rivers foothills community, parts of which are subject to an evacuation warning.

In northern California, firefighters appeared to be turning a corner of the monstrous Dixie Fire, which has burned more than 960,000 acres in several counties north of Sacramento since it started in Plumas County about two months ago.

Less than 100,000 acres of becoming the largest wildfire in California history, the Dixie Fire last week exploded along the northwestern part, causing the evacuation of several rural communities as the flames were approaching.

But Monday morning, the fire was 75% under control, an increase of 16% since Friday.

Containment of the nearly 220,000-acre Caldor fire that devastated El Dorado County also improved and was 67% as of Monday morning.

With fuels through the state dry in the midst of years of relentless drought, the fire continues to ignite and spread at rapid speeds.

Elsewhere in northern California, lightning brought by intense storm cells started fires from El Dorado to Mendocino counties as it struck historically dry fuels.

A rapid fire burned down some structures on Sunday afternoon near Lake Mendocino and prompted evacuations, officials said.

The Hopkins Fire that started Sunday in Mendocino County burned just over 250 acres near the town of Calpella, north of Santa Rosa, and is 20% contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and fire protection.

Social media posts showed that the fire engulfed some structures. While a damage investigation is ongoing, the fire continues to threaten around 200 structures, according to a report from Cal Fire.

Lower nighttime temperatures and increased humidity helped firefighters contain the blaze and increase containment, firefighters said.

A bushfire that erupted on Saturday afternoon and temporarily closed Highway 5 in both directions near Castaic had reached 462 acres on Monday and was 63% contained. Flames were visible along the roadway as what was dubbed the Highway Fire developed at a moderate speed through Chaparral.

Southbound lanes of the 5 have been reopened and northbound lane closures were scheduled to lift at 7 p.m. Monday, according to a recent incident report.