Union Democrat – Prescribed Fire…June 2023

 6-9-23  https://www.uniondemocrat.com/news/article_29057572-071b-11ee-8fc0-136a1f7a8454.html
Prescribed fire severely damages pair of iconic giant sequoias in Calaveras Big Trees State Park

By Guy McCarthy Jun 9, 2023 

The Orphans

A historic pair of giant sequoias known as “The Orphans” since at least the 1860s have been severely damaged during prescribed fire operations last fall near an edge of the North Grove in Calaveras Big Trees State Park, a loss that’s being described as a tragedy.

The Orphans are viewed as park icons in part because they are at least 500 years old and appear in a 1862 lithograph image by artist C.C. Kuchel that was first published in “The Mammoth Tree Grove, Calaveras County, California, and Its Avenues,” by Edward Vischer.

Photos of the scorched Orphans have been on social media since at least mid-May. Knowing that prescribed fire intended to protect the ancient giants is responsible for killing two of the rare icons has raised concerns among advocates for Calaveras Big Trees and for fuels reduction efforts in the park. 

“We were saddened to hear The Orphans were burned in a prescribed burn,” Paul Prescott, president of Calaveras Big Trees Association, the nonprofit partner of the park, said Thursday.  “We understand prescribed burning is an important but tricky tool to saving our sequoias and are waiting to hear from the park what they learned from their investigation.”

Calaveras County Supervisor Martin Huberty said the situation with the Orphans has shaken his confidence toward current policies and procedures for fuels reduction within the state park. Everyone has an obligation as stewards to the magnificent giants in Big Trees State Park.

“My concerns above and beyond the trees are the safety of the constituents and businesses of the upper Highway 4 corridor and the continued attraction to the No. 1 economic tourist driver in our county,” Huberty said Thursday. “I look forward to sitting down shortly with all interested parties to discuss the way forward.”

State parks authorities plan to do prescribed burns on the entire 1,300 acres of the fire-threatened South Grove, home to an estimated 1,000 large giant sequoias, in the Tuolumne County section of Calaveras Big Trees State Park later this year, Danielle Gerhart, superintendent for the California State Parks Central Valley District, said in December. That plan is still in place as of this week, state parks staff said. 

Gerhart was not reachable this week for comment.

A California State Parks statement issued Thursday said one of two monarch giant sequoias known as “The Orphans” experienced significant scorch during a prescribed burn in October 2022 at Calaveras Big Trees State Park.

“It is unknown at this time if the impacted monarch giant sequoia will survive,” the statement said. “Sequoia mortality in prescribed burns is both extremely rare and a natural part of a natural process. Tree mortality, when it happens, creates habitat for many years for a wide range of species. Prescribed burns attempt to replicate the natural process and have saved dozens of sequoias in previous fire seasons, including at the Mariposa Grove last year.”

An Oct. 22 email update about prescribed fire operations in Calaveras Big Trees State Park, distributed among state parks staff, stated that “one giant sequoia at marker 14 had the crown catch fire. This tree had a dead top section prior to the burn. The fire in the crown is still smoldering.”

It’s not clear from the email whether the crown-damaged sequoia is one of the Orphans.

Kristen Shive, an ecosystem scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, examined photos of the Orphans this week and emphasized she has not seen the badly scorched trees in person. She recently studied how wildfires can damage giant sequoias.

“The tree on the left probably has enough green foliage to survive,” Shive said Thursday. “For the tree on the right, in the photos it looks like there is no green at all,” Shive said. “If that’s the case, then it is dead. If there is some green that is just not visible in the photos, it could have a chance, as they can sustain pretty high crown damage and survive.”

Shive was lead researcher with five others on a 2022 study, “Ancient trees and modern wildfires: Declining resilience to wildfire in the highly fire-adapted giant sequoia.” Their study of recent wildfires found that trees with a large fire scar at their base can take roughly 85 to 90% crown loss, and still survive, Shive said Thursday.

“Unfortunately, it’s impossible to do a prescribed fire with zero risk to the sequoias,” Shive said. “The only alternative to that risk is to do nothing. Doing nothing would keep these groves fuel-loaded and at high risk of severe fire that has the potential to kill far more of these incredible trees.”

John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte and a former Stanislaus National Forest wildland firefighter for 13 years, visited the Orphans in person Thursday morning. 

As a Forest Service firefighter and fire scientist, Buckley helped supervise and implement prescribed fire treatments. Fire is a blunt, imprecise tool, he said Thursday, standing below the scorched Orphans.

“I love giant sequoias and other old growth trees, and any time that there’s damage to such iconic trees, it’s sad and I’m personally disturbed,” Buckley said. “Having said that, it is pivotally important for people who care about Big Trees Park to consider this in context of all the positive that’s been done by the broadcast burning the state parks are doing.”

in 2020 and 2021, more than 10,000 large giant sequoias were killed by just three wildfires in the Southern Sierra. That was 17% to 19% of all the giant sequoias in the world killed or mortally damaged in just two years

That was in large part because the National Park Service, the Forest Service and a number of other entities didn’t have managed, low-intensity fires. The custodians of forests containing giant sequoias either failed to allow managed fires to happen, or they did not plan managed fires in part because there was already such a tremendous buildup of fuels ready to burn. 

“So two trees from something that’s intended to be beneficial has to be also looked at,” Buckley said. “Even if there’s an additional six or so trees that were damaged elsewhere in the North Grove as well, that has to be looked at in context of the loss of more than 10,000 large giant sequoias.”

Providing a burned buffer around the North Grove to better protect its hundred or so mature giant sequoias is a tremendous benefit, even though it’s very unfortunate that during the process the Orphans were so severely scorched, Buckley said.

Buckley, like Shive, said one of the Orphans is likely mortally damaged. The other Orphan has retained 15% to 20% of its crown foliage. The survival of the Orphans will depend in part on whether each tree’s inner cambium tissue was scorched deep enough underneath the bark, and whether or not there’s regeneration of their needles within a fairly short period of time to get regeneration going for the tree.

“If it doesn’t have the sap being drawn up by photosynthesis, then it becomes so stressed that the recovery is unlikely,” Buckley said.

The Orphans are well over 120 feet tall, and at 500 to 1,000 years old, they were living before the English began establishing their American colonies in the 1600s.

Tom Van Lokeren, a resident of Arnold and a tree lover from Michigan, said Thursday, “It’s a cruel irony that they are called The Orphans. They are a mere 135 feet from the Walter Smith Memorial Parkway, a fire-hose-stream-of-water away, yet left unattended to burn up. I’m in disbelief. This didn’t need to happen. It cries out negligence, complacency. A dereliction of duty.”

Van Lokeren said the crisis at Calaveras Big Trees is due to the intense amount of fire fuel in the park. He said he plans to coordinate a blessing for the Orphans at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, beginning at the warming hut next to the main Visitors Center parking lot and the North Grove. It’s an easy, 30-minute walk to the Orphans from the warming hut, Van Lokeren said. Adam Lewis, a leader of the Calaveras Band of Mi-Wuk Indians, will offer a blessing.

California State Parks and Cal Fire plan to begin more prescribed burning at Calaveras Big Trees State Park starting as soon as Monday. The planned treatment on as much as 155 acres will include areas along Highway 4.

Visitors should expect closures during the prescribed burn, potentially including a section of West Moran Road in the park and one lane of traffic control on Highway 4 near the park entrance. 

If weather, air quality, or vegetation conditions are not conducive for burning or smoke dispersal, burn bosses will reschedule the treatment.

California State Parks said in a Thursday announcement the state is committed to the protection and stewardship of the Calaveras Big Trees giant sequoia groves in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties. Prescribed burning is one of the tools used by state parks for vegetation management to increase forest resilience and promote new giant sequoia growth.

Forest management and prescribed fires help restore and maintain a complex forest community, reduce hazardous fuel loads, improve wildlife habitat, restore nutrients to the soil, protect park infrastructure, and reduce chances of catastrophic wildfires, California State Parks said.

The Orphans” likely earned their name because they are isolated from the other hundred or so mature giant sequoias in the North Grove at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. This photo shows the pair of giants on Feb. 5, 2022, before they were severely damaged during prescribed fire operations in the Park.

The OrphansThis lithograph image of The Orphans by C.C. Kuchel was first published in 1862 in “The Mammoth Tree Grove, Calaveras County, California, and Its Avenues” by Edward Vischer.

The OrphansJohn Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center and a former Forest Service wildland firefighter who helped supervise and implement prescribed fire treatments, examined two giant sequoias Thursday that were severely damaged during prescribed fire operations near an edge of the North Grove in Calaveras Big Trees State Park  

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.