SIERRA NEVADA, Calif. — Giant sequoia trees have been able to withstand centuries of wildfires, evolving over thousands of years to co-exist.
People from around the world travel to California's Sierra Nevada mountains to connect with the 3,000-year-old trees.
"I think I'm always blown away by their age about how much that they have lived through and how they have been resilient enough to survive so much of what nature has thrown at them in the past," said Tim Borden, sequoia restoration and stewardship manager with Save the Redwoods League.
The fire-resistant trees are protected by several feet of thick bark and high canopies to escape the flames.
Borden says up until 2015, they didn't believe giant sequoias were endangered.
"These fires are burning hotter. They're burning faster than they ever had before, and they have pushed giant sequoia to the brink of where they've evolved, their evolutionary boundaries," said Borden. "And so, for a long time, these trees could survive with fire, but with the kind of fire that we're now seeing in the Sierra, we're seeing massive rates of tree mortality."
Save the Redwoods is a nonprofit organization with a mission to protect and restore coast redwood and giant sequoia trees through the preemptive purchase of development rights to notable areas with such forests.
Their experts say a century of fire suppression has left forests with dense vegetation, fueling wildfires along with severe heat and drought.
The National Park Service estimates thousands of giant sequoias were killed in the 2020 Castle Fire.
"That fire alone killed between 10% and 14% of the total old-growth giant sequoia. That's unheard of; there's nothing to compare that to," said Borden. "That event is so uncharacteristic, and just something that up until 2015 we didn't think was possible."
Hundreds more are estimated to have been killed this year by the Windy Fire and KNP Complex. Firefighters used aluminum blankets to protect some of the forest's most sacred trees; a tool typically used to protect structures.
"Structure wrap around the base of these trees is a Band-Aid," said Borden. "We know what to do. We know what to do to protect these forests."
He says forest restoration is needed to remove small trees and overgrowth in the dense forest. As well as prescribed burning to clear dry vegetation and keep future forest fires at bay.
"For either of those events to occur, it's a really long planning process, right now," said Borden. "What we need are exceptions for the emergency work that needs to get done in our forest. There need to be exceptions for restoration work and for prescribed fire because we've run out of time."
He says the work will cost billions of dollars.
"I think there's a lot of effort right now that we could put forth to start putting more and more pressure on our legislatures to be able to make appropriations for what needs to be done," said Borden.
If the forest balance is restored, giant sequoias could once again co-exist with fire. A symbiotic relationship the trees rely on for survival. During low-severity fires, heat helps release thousands of seeds from the sequoia cone.
"Our forests and our partners are desperately in need of more resources and more funding to be able to do this work. The urgency was always there in the last couple of years. And it's just getting more urgent," said Borden. "It's worth protecting."