YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. (AP) – A wildfire that threatened the largest forest of giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park more than doubled in one day, and firefighters worked hard on Sunday to clear the iconic trees and a protect small mountain town as the US endures another very active year for fires.
Campers and residents near the fire were evacuated, but the rest of the sprawling California park remained open, though heavy smoke obscured scenic views and created unhealthy air quality.
“Today is actually the most smoky we’ve ever seen,” Yosemite Fire Information spokeswoman Nancy Phillipe said Sunday. “Until this morning, the park was not in that unhealthy category, but that’s where we are now.”
More than 500 adult sequoias were threatened in the famous Mariposa Grove, but there were no reports of serious damage to any of the trees mentioned, including the 3,000-year-old Grizzly Giant.
A sprinkler system set up inside the forest kept the tree trunks moist and officials were hopeful that the steady spray of water along with previously prescribed burns would be enough to keep flames away, Phillipe said.
The cause of the Washburn fire is being investigated. By Sunday morning, it had grown to nearly 2.5 square miles (6.7 square kilometers), with no restrictions.
Beyond the trees, the community of Wawona, surrounded by parks, was threatened, with people ordered to leave late Friday. In addition to residents, about 600 to 700 people who stayed at the Wawona campsite in tents, huts and a historic hotel were ordered to leave.
Temperatures are expected to rise in the coming days and reach the lower 90s, but firefighters working in steep terrain did not face intense winds, said Jeffrey Barlow, senior meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Hanford.
The giant sequoias, native to only about 70 forests scattered along the western slope of California’s Sierra Nevada range, were once considered impenetrable to flames, but have become increasingly vulnerable as wildfires have been fueled by a build-up of undergrowth. a century of fire suppression and drought exacerbated by climate change has become more intense and devastating.
Phillipe, the park spokeswoman, had previously said some of the massive trunks were wrapped in fire-resistant foil for protection, but she corrected herself on Sunday, saying that was not the case for the fire. However, the teams wrapped a historic cabin in the protective foil, she said.
Lightning wildfires have killed up to a fifth of the estimated 75,000 large sequoias in the past two years, which are the largest trees in volume and a major tourist attraction to the national park as large as the state of Rhode Island.
There was no clear natural spark for the fire that broke out along the park’s Washburn trail on Thursday, Phillipe said. Smoke was reported by visitors walking in the woods that reopened in 2018 after a $ 40 million renovation that took three years.
A severe windstorm swept through the forest more than a year ago, dropping 15 giant sequoias, along with countless other trees.
The felled trees, along with massive numbers of pines killed by bark beetles, provided enough fuel for the flames.
Meanwhile, most evacuation orders were lifted Saturday in the Sierra foothills about 80 miles (128 kilometers) northwest of the Yosemite fire, where a fire broke out on July 4th. The Electra fire that started near Jackson was mostly contained, and only areas directly within the fire’s perimeter remained under evacuation orders, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
In Utah, smoke and ash emanating from a growing wildfire in rural Tooele County blew up Salt Lake City on Saturday. By Sunday afternoon, the Jacob City fire had grown to 5.9 square miles (15.3 square km), with no restraint, officials said.
Elsewhere in Utah, firefighters battling heavy winds battled the 12.4-square-mile (32.2-square-mile) Halfway Hill Fire in Filmore. Law enforcement officers on Saturday arrested four men who, according to investigators, set off a campfire that set the flames on fire.
So far in 2022, more than 35,000 wildfires have burned nearly 4.7 million acres in the U.S., according to the National Interagency Fire Center, well above average for both wildfires and acres burned.