Tag Archives: sequoia tree

Firefighters try to save sequoia trees from wildfires with blankets

As flames approach the massive trees in the Sequoia National Park in California, firefighters are looking at different strategies to prevent them from being affected – including wrapping them with fire-resistant blankets. The forest has more than 2,000 sequoias, including General Sherman — the biggest tree by volume on the planet.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

More than 350 firefighters, helicopters, and water-dropping planes are currently battling the blazes, which are expected to the forest in a matter of hours. They have already wrapped General Sherman, some other sequoias, the Giant Forest Museum as well as other buildings as protection against the possible flames. 

The fires are sadly no news for the state of California, which so far this year has seen 2.2 million acres affected by 7,4000 wildfires. These are driven by extreme drought and higher temperatures, both influenced by the climate crisis. A warmer world increases the chances of having dry and hot weather that then leads to wildfires. 

“It’s a very significant area for many, many people, so a lot of special effort is going into protecting this grove,” Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks spokesperson Rebecca Paterson told the LA Times. “Certain notable giants, including the General Sherman, “are being prepped the same way that we would prep structures.”

Wrapping up

The firefighters first clear the vegetation around the trees and then place an aluminum wrapping around their bases. These are intended to shield the trees from raining embers and also reflect radiant heat. It’s the same material that firefighters always carry in case there’s a burn-over, as it can tolerate intensive heat for short periods. 

Image credit: US Forest Service.

Paterson said they have used this material for many years across the West of the US to protect certain structures from flames. In fact, in a recent fire in Lake Tahoe, some homes were wrapped with the material and could survive the flames. For sequoias, the aluminum adds another layer to the natural protection against fires they already have.

Fortunately, these are trees that are well adapted to tolerate wildfire. They even leverage it to reproduce, as flames heat their cones to release seeds. But as fires get more intense due to drought and climate change, the sequoias aren’t as protected as before. Last year, 10% of the giant sequoia population was wiped out due to the feracious blaze. 

But there’s still reason for optimism. The area where the sequoias area has been subject to prescribed burns several times, a tactic that clears the understory and overgrowth that acts as fuel for the fires. “Of all the things that affect fire behavior, the fuels is really where we can take action,” Maureen Kennedy, a professor of wildfire ecology, told AP. 

Park employees and residents have already been evacuated, with the park closed down to the public. The Colony Fire, one of the two currently burning near the park, could reach the 2,000 sequoia trees on the next few days, firefighters predict. Meanwhile, the Paradise Fire, is moving close to the park headquarters.

The General Sherman Tree is considered the largest tree in the world by volume, with 1,487 cubic meters or 52,508 cubic feet, according to the US National Park Service. It is 84 meters high, or 275 feet, and has a circumference of 31 meters, or 103 feet, at ground level. A quite remarkable tree worth preserving with as many blankets it takes.

California redwoods. Credit: CBS This Morning.

Scientists sequence genomes of world’s tallest trees

Coast redwoods and giant sequoia trees are California’s oldest residents, some being more than 2,000 years old. These magnificently tall trees have had their genomes sequenced for the first time, a major breakthrough that scientists claim will help preserve them for generations from the perils of disease and climate change.

California redwoods. Credit: CBS This Morning.

California redwoods. Credit: CBS This Morning.

The $2.6 million Redwood Genome Project, which first began in 2017, is the culmination of state-of-the-art genetic research and the most extensive genetic study ever done on primeval forests. David Neale, a University of California Davis plant scientist who led the project, along with colleagues at Johns Hopkins University and the Save the Redwoods League, used a supercomputer to analyze the DNA extracted from tissues taken from a coast redwood tree (Sequoia sempervirens) in Butano State Park and a giant sequoia tree (Sequoiadendron giganteum) from Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park.

Amazingly, the researchers found that the two species had some of the largest genomes known so far. The coast redwood genome has 6 sets of chromosomes and 27 billion base pairs of DNA, compared to only two sets of chromosomes and nine times fewer base pairs in humans. The giant sequoia has a more modest genome with 8 billion base pairs, but that’s still three times larger than the human genome.

“These narrow endemics play important roles in ecology, economy, culture, and conservation. Although redwoods have been around for millions of years, we know very little about how these trees evolved to occupy their current range,” Neale wrote on the project’s website.

The largest known genome belongs to the axolotl, a North American salamander, which numbers 28 billion base pairs. Researchers believe that its rich genome is what allows the salamander to not only regenerate limbs but also grow back internal organs.

It makes sense for a tree such as a redwood to have a complex genome. These trees can grow in the same place for thousands of years so they require a robust ability to fight off fungi, insects, and significant swings in temperature and humidity throughout their lifetime.

“We’re trying to build a 23andMe for trees, where a manager sends in their samples and gets a risk evaluation of their forest populations, if not individual trees,” Neale said in a statement. “Completing the sequences of the coast redwood and giant sequoia genomes is the first step.”

Sequencing the genomes of the world’s tallest trees, which can reach higher heights than the Statue of Liberty, is paramount to their conservation. Old-growth forests used to grow from the Sierra Nevada range and along the California coast all the way to the Oregon border. Sadly, loggers have cut down more than 95% of these forests since 1850. The few remaining forests have been granted special status and are protected in national parks, however, they are still threatened by climate change.

Ultimately, the project aims to develop genetic variation models for the various groves of old growth. In the future, it might be possible for a forest manager to send no more than a tree’s leaf to a specialized lab and get back a report on the trees and their vulnerability to drought and variations in temperature. This way, they can then make restoration decisions based on genetic diversity. This process to identify flaws in the trees is not all that different from the one that led to new cures for diseases like sickle cell anemia after the human genome was first sequenced in 2000.

“Every time we plant a seedling or thin a redwood stand to reduce fuel loads or accelerate growth, we potentially affect the genomic diversity of the forest,” said Emily Burns, director of science for Save the Redwoods League. “With the new genome tools we’re developing now, we will soon be able to see the hidden genomic diversity in the forest for the first time and design local conservation strategies that promote natural genomic diversity. This is a gift of resilience we can give our iconic redwood forests for the future.”