Environmental Protection

They Will Survive

Forest rangers and biologists placing sprinklers around sequoias threatened by Rim Fire likely serves public opinion more than trees.

Many express concerns about the fate of giant sequoias as California’s Rim Fire progresses toward two groves in Yosemite National Park. Concerned rangers have placed sprinklers around the trees in preservation efforts. Yet the majestic trees, some as old as 3500 years, have survived many wildfires in the course of history and will likely survive this fire, too.

So says Stephen C. Sillett, an ecologist from Humboldt State University and recipient of National Geographic Society grants to study the giants in Sequoia National Park. In an August 26 interview with National Geographic, Sillett explained full-grown sequoias have a fibrous, fire-resistant bark that can grow up to two feet thick. Fires can damage the biggest trees, but usually don’t kill them. “The big trees are going to be fine,” he said. “Smaller, weaker, non-giant sequoias will die.”

Fires may actually benefit sequoias because the heat opens cones and distribute seedlings in ash that serves as fertilizer. In addition, fires eliminate competing plants, which gives sequoia seedlings a competitive edge. “It’s not like sequoias need fire to spread their seeds, but they live in a fire-prone environment, and they know what they’re doing,” said Sillett. He explained that a single sequoia can host more than 100,000 cones. The cones are green when living, which means they conduct photosynthesis and produce sugars required for growth. Each cone can live 10 to 20 years. After it dies, it opens and drops seeds.

Sillett further said sequoias are well adapted to survive fires. “They are incredible trees,” he said.

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