Firefighters were fighting an intense battle Sunday morning to protect hundreds of ancient redwood trees threatened by blazes that raged across rugged, parched terrain in Yosemite National Park.
The Washburn Fire had grown to at least 1,591 acres and was burning at the south end of the park near historic Mariposa Grove, home to about 500 giant sequoias, officials said. The fire also threatens the community of Wawona and prompted authorities to close Highway 41.
More than 300 firefighters were battling the blaze in a coordinated ground and air attack, officials said. In the Mariposa Grove, crews scraped ground cover down to bare ground to prevent flames and localized fires from spreading, and wrapped some of the ancient giants in protective foil.
Firefighters had also set up a sprinkler system to douse the famous Grizzly Giant, which stands over 200 feet tall and is one of the tallest redwoods in the park.
“The fire is burning in difficult terrain with continuous combustibles,” posing a “significant threat to firefighters,” fire officials said in a statement.
On Saturday, intense smoke and flames sent embers and fire debris hundreds of feet into the air, nearly striking a plane that was battling the fire, according to radio traffic of the shooting.
“A branch passed us,” the pilot told dispatchers. “Pretty good size, probably 50 feet above us on the way down and falling right between tanker 103 and myself.”
“Okay, copy. So like a repeat of yesterday,” a dispatcher said.
“That’s exactly what I mean,” replied the pilot. “So if we keep seeing this, we may have to take it down. I don’t want to take the risk of breaking an airplane window or hurting an airplane for that.
Good news for firefighters is that relative humidity was reported Sunday morning at around 26%, officials said. The lower the humidity, the drier the conditions, increasing the chances of faster flame spread. Fire officials said they expected the blaze to “continue to grow moderately” and temperatures should reach the low 80s.
A warming trend is expected to begin on Sunday and continue through the week.
Officials said Sunday that Yosemite remains open and visitors are encouraged to enter the park via highways 140 or 120, officials said.
The Washburn Fire was the latest to threaten the ancient redwoods, which are found in the wild only on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Although adapted to thrive in fire, redwoods are increasingly no match for intense wildfires brought on by climate change, years of drought and decades of aggressive fire suppression, which have resulted in dense vegetation in some wooded areas.
Fire officials noted that a history of prescribed burns in the Mariposa Grove, along with scars from recent burns, could slow fire spread and limit potential damage.
“Once the fire reaches some of the recent fire scars, the spread may slow down,” officials said.
Los Angeles Times