Last year, forest workers spread out throughout Sequoia National Park to preserve an old grove of California redwoods from wildfire.
A dozen team members covered General Sherman’s 36-foot-wide trunk in fireproof fabric while smoke billowed across a forest of enormous sequoias.
The rescue confirmed California’s wildfires are blazing quicker and hotter than ever, jeopardizing a species that had acclimated to past fires.
“If you told someone 30 years ago we’d do this, they’d think you’re insane. The tree bark is 12 to 18 inches thick, said Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks’ Christy Brigham. It’s a growing emergency, though.
Recent fires have killed more than 13% of all giant sequoias, a species that grows only in California’s western sierra. Scientists and policymakers are afraid that the state is nearing a tipping point when its forests will produce more warming carbon dioxide.
The California Air Resources Board wants to reach carbon neutrality by 2045, so it’s urging state and federal agencies to thin and treat dangerously overgrown trees.
Burned woods lower California’s carbon storage capacity, or carbon stock, which helps offset greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.
Burning trees emit carbon dioxide. In 2020, California wildfires released more CO2 than all industrial facilities.
Who benefits if these trees burn, asked climate scientist Pawlok Dass? Carbon reenters the atmosphere.
Scientists predict that California’s flora traps 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide. Giant sequoias store more carbon dioxide per hectare than any other tree in the world and have for thousands of years.
Due to drought, heat, and wildfires, California’s carbon stock is expected to diminish during the next two decades.
In a worst-case scenario, woods might become a major source of emissions by mid-century, Dass warned.
Improving forest health is an important feature of CARB’s draft climate plan.
Adam Moreno, a senior climate scientist on the board, said “a lot of our approach is focused on not losing the carbon stock that we have”
State officials want to tenfold land usage by 2025, including a dramatic rise in mandatory burning – fires planned to burn forest growth. If federal and state teams treat at least 2.3 million acres of natural land year, it could reduce wildfire emissions by 10% over two decades.
Only 250,000 acres are treated annually, according to the Air Resources Board.
Moreno: “We’re striving to reach 1 million acres.” Workforce development, permitting, finance, dealing with landowners, and collaborating with tribes are all implementation problems.
California has enormous forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, chaparral clusters nested in hills, remains of Pacific wetlands, Joshua tree-dotted deserts, expansive grasslands, and coastal prairies.
Wildfire-prone woods and shrublands hold 85% of the state’s carbon supply.
Forests face rising challenges.
Climate change has exacerbated droughts and heat waves, leading to higher tree mortality and slower development. Without water, many trees can’t produce sap to kill bark bugs.
This mortality follows generations of forest overcrowding, when forest managers extinguished wildfires and restricted indigenous fire methods.
Over the years, dead trees and pine needles have collected, making woods tinder-rich.
In 2020, the Castle Fire combined with another fire and attacked Sequoia National Park’s Board Camp. According to the National Park Service, the fire killed 7,500 to 10,600 giant redwoods.
The park’s scientific director says increasing the pace and extent of prescribed fires has proved difficult. With drier conditions and year-round wildfires, forest workers must be careful controlled fires don’t spread.
National park and US Forest Service experts are assessing blaze damage and tree mortality. They explore scorched dirt seeking fresh life.
Wildfires are destructive, but they help trees reproduce.
Sequoias store seeds in cones. As the fire burns near them, elder cones open and release seeds, generally weeks before rain sweeps them into the earth.
Forest workers often find thousands of seedlings after low-intensity fires. Few mature.
Those who do will become the world’s largest organisms.