San Francisco Chronicle
Sequoia spared: Hand crews protect world’s largest tree from direct fire damage in Sequoia National Park’s Giant Forest.
The world’s largest tree, the General Sherman in Sequoia National Park, was spared direct fire damage as the KNP Complex blaze swept into the park’s beloved Giant Forest over the weekend, while flames from the Windy Fire burned into other sequoia groves on Sierra Nevada slopes to the south and threatened Tulare County homes, officials said Sunday.
Hand crews worked to clear the area around the General Sherman and set controlled fires to remove ground fuel and expand the protection area around the grove, Jack Owen, spokesperson for the KNP Complex Fire Information Office, said Sunday evening.
“There are no trees that have been burned yet, as far as in the grove or in the Giant Forest,” Owen said. Fire crews “are pouring everything they can into it as long as it’s safe. We are just plugging along. That area is looking good.”
Crews aimed around-the-clock sprinklers at the General Sherman and park buildings in the area to minimize the fire risk, he added.
When the flames swept into some parts of the famous grove, careful preparation — including wrapping the General Sherman and several other giants in aluminum insulated protective blankets — and decades of prescribed burns slowed the fire and prevented significant damage, said Rebecca Paterson, a fire spokesperson.
The fire also burned through other sequoia groves in remote areas that firefighters cannot safely access, so the extent of damage was not yet known, Paterson said.
Further south on the Sierra slopes, the Windy Fire also threatened giant sequoia groves, and 1,750 homes, along with 175 commercial and mixeduse buildings, and 350 “minor structures” like barns and garages, officials said.
The Windy Fire was burning on the Tule River Indian Reservation and in Giant Sequoia National Monument in Sequoia National Forest. As of Sunday, the blaze had spread over 23,801 acres and was 4% contained.
It burned through the Peyrone and Red Hill groves, and a portion of the Long Meadow Grove along the Trail of 100 Giants, considered a premier grove of giant sequoias, some dating 1,500 years, the U.S. Forest Service said. Amanda Muncie, spokesperson on the Windy Fire, said it had entered 50% of the trail. An Associated Press photographer captured flames burning up a tree trunk and the forest floor below ablaze.
Muncie said firefighters worked to protect homes and to strengthen dozer lines around the fire. Evacuation orders were in place for parts of Tulare County, starting Saturday. About 550 households had been evacuated, officials said Sunday. Firefighters expected calmer overnight winds to help combat the blaze before drier, hotter weather returns Monday.
In Sequoia National Park, gusty winds that prompted a red flag warning had not materialized by Sunday afternoon, Owen said. Still, hand crews worked throughout the forest to prepare for the worst. As of Sunday, the KNP Complex had burned 21,777 acres and remained uncontained.
Reaching the famous Giant Forest on Friday, it had burned only in a small area, said Katy Hooper, National Park Service fire information officer.
It reached a cluster of titanic trees, known as the Four Guardsmen, but did not damage them, officials said Sunday. Firefighters had successfully burned out ground fuel and wrapped the base of the sequoias with the aluminum insulated blankets — successfully protecting them.
Fire officials had expressed confidence that the Giant Forest overall, spanning 3 square miles and containing about 2,000 sequoias, was protected against the flames. The forest floor was cleared of most debris, while decades of prescribed burns reduced potential fuel in the area.
With fire movement north toward Lodgepole, a part of the park with a visitor center, stores and restaurants, a campground and employee housing, Owen said Lodgepole remained in “pretty good shape.” Hand crews worked in the area to strengthen dozer lines to prevent the fire from coming into the area.
In northeastern California, the five-county Dixie Fire remained at 963,301 acres and 88% contained. The Caldor Fire near Lake Tahoe was 218,876 acres and 71% contained. The U.S. Forest Service announced Sunday that Highway 50 would reopen between Kyburz and Meyers at 8 a.m. Monday, just to allow residents of the area and property owners to examine damage before the highway opens to the public. Evacuation orders still prevent them from returning to live there.
Danielle Echeverria, Michael Cabanatuan and Sarah Ravani are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, mcabanatuan@ sfchronicle.com, email@example.com Twitter: @DanielleEchev, @ctuan, @SarRavani