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OPINION | FRAN ALEXANDER: Giant trees survive thousands of years, but remain vulnerable in today’s climate

Scarred sequoias send humans a warning by Fran Alexander | December 27, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.

Charred and hanging in downward cupped positions, like ballerinas expressing sadness or despair, the skeletal arms of the giant sequoias dangle on the hillsides and spread their grief to the stream beds below. We humans, even with our tiny knowledge of what life requires for survival, are somehow forced to realize that our eyes aren't lying about what we see. These tree-wonders upon this planet of endless wonders are proving to us that they, though long thought resilient enough to withstand even the element of fire, are as vulnerable as we humans are to severe intensities. Dryness, blasting wind, early snow melt and rising temperatures are becoming extreme beyond what these trees have endured over thousands of years.

"Thousands" is a key word for sequoias. From a distance, at first the expanse of thousands of acres of thousands of burned trunks looks as if the forest was simply darkened by a cloud's shadow. But when sunshine weaves light through the stark silhouettes on the mountain rims, it clearly outlines that a hot death streaked its monstrous fingers through this forest, scorching living green into black bones.

Fire plays a role for some trees by cleaning off the forest floor so seeds can touch dirt, and it opens the canopy overhead to let in sunlight. Some tree species have to wait for fire to release their seeds from the grip of their pods, cones, and burs. For sequoia seed to spread, a small tree squirrel, the chickaree, and a boring beetle larvae are tiny necessities that play even bigger roles in this ecosystem.

Too much of a good thing -- like fire or water or bugs -- can, of course, be a killer. In 2020 the Castle fire and in 2021 the KNP Complex fire raged through this forest on the western side of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, killing an estimated 19% of all the large sequoias where fire reached. This loss is devastating on many levels environmentally, but also personally to those of us who understand the warning message the scars have left. Entering the living woods is to enter the grandest of grand cathedrals made of massive columns and skyward branching arches on trees created, born, and anchored exactly where they stand today. But the fires scream at us that nothing is safe or forever.

Over Thanksgiving, my husband and I shared a trip to the Sequoia National Park with our youngest daughter and her daughter. Since I first saw the giants with my grandmother when I was 10, like my granddaughter is now, that forest has maintained its rank as my favorite place on earth. It is a place where you can actually walk inside the hollows of some of the world's oldest living things, outranked in age on some tree lists by bristlecone pines, which have reached 5,000 years, and a cypress in Chile over 3,600 years. The sequoias' fossilized relatives extend back 125 million years to the Cretaceous Period or earlier.

Sequoias in California have been recorded to be as old as 3,000 years. That's a thousand years of growing before Christ was born. They were growing not long after King Tut's death in Egypt in 1323 BC. They were quietly adding to their girth when Cleopatra VII became queen of Egypt in 51 BC, and when Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 BC. They were getting on into perhaps their middle age (who knows) when Notre Dame in Paris was completed in 1345 AD and when Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. And they are still growing today alongside youngsters of all ages.

People often confuse the sequoias with the coastal redwoods, but sequoias, although in the redwood family, live inland. There are various groves of them in the state, some of the biggest being in the park east of Fresno and south of Yosemite National Park. Location-location-location is what determines if coastal redwoods can reach their staggering heights (tallest is 379.3 feet -- 75 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty) and the sequoias to reach their colossal bulk. One giant is 36 feet in base diameter and another is 642 tons in total volume (about 107 elephants).

Fortunately fire fighters managed to save most of the more famous giants and park groves ... this time. And we got to hold hands and marvel with our children at some of the grandest wonders in our world. I only hope the trees will still be there for their children's children to see.

Print Headline: The vulnerable giants

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