Monday, October 11, 2021

Fawn fire now worst in state history, threatening one of California’s most endangered species

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The Fawn fire burning deep in the Sierra Nevada in Northern California is on track to become the fifth-largest wildfire in state history, according to officials, and it may already top the 2015 blazes that killed nine people and scorched a total of nearly 2,500 sq miles.

As of Tuesday evening, the fire – which has consumed hundreds of homes, hundreds of other structures and burned some 7,500+ acres (2,250 sq km) – has burned just 30% of its southeastern edge, where many of the giant sequoias are known to exist.

The fire, of which the San Gabriel Mountains are part, first broke out on Monday afternoon and spread like a wildfire over multiple county lines within hours. The state fire and emergency officials have been helping local fire departments in the area since Monday.

Although the Fawn fire has only got off to such a slow start, multiple large wildfires continue to move into the Mariposa County area of Northern California. There are currently 29 fires raging in the state, including 13 “wildfires that are actively burning”, according to the state’s vegetation monitoring agency, Cal Fire.

The Golden State is facing a multi-year fire season that began last summer. Only a few months into the new year, California has already burned more acres than it did in all of 2018, and so far in 2019, the state has already burned more acres than the previous record-breaking year of 2016. So far this year, Northern California has been especially hard hit by wildfires – a troubling trend.

Last year, Northern California was widely considered to be experiencing one of the state’s worst fire seasons in decades. Despite the official designation of a “fire season” throughout the US, California’s short northern season means the biggest fires tend to start there at least partly in response to the long and hot summers.

There have been more than 50,000 wildfires throughout the US this year, with 42% of them happening in California, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. That’s the highest percentage since 2010, which was also a record-breaking year in terms of acres burned and hot and dry conditions.

During the wildfires, the Sierra Nevada’s succulent plants would normally be completely green, but in the absence of grasses, many of the trees would have red or green shoots by now.

Giant sequoias, who live far longer than other living organisms, are classified as one of California’s most endangered species. The nine named giant sequoias here are only the second set of giant sequoias found since the 1920s in California.

However, there are over 2,000 more giant sequoias in the adjacent area, which are less susceptible to fire, according to Chris Grou, the superintendent of Sequoia national park in California.

“The damage that they sustained … [in the Fire] is far less than most,” he said.

Though losing the giant sequoias to the flames would be devastating, Grou said that if the team had to choose to plant seedlings and hope they would make it, that would be the correct choice, regardless of the fire risk. But the costs of planting trees in this area are prohibitive – planting sequoias in the western Sierra Nevada is 1.5 times more expensive than elsewhere in the state, Grou said.

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