A fire in California’s Sierra Nevada continued to spread Sunday, with sprinklers deployed to protect Mariposa Grove’s treasured giant sequoia trees.
The Yosemite National Park fire was measured at 2,044 acres overnight. It was not contained and would likely continue to grow in light winds and hot conditions, US Forest Service officials said Sunday.
The beloved trees are not wrapped in firefighting film, as had been reported, Yosemite National Park Superintendent Cicely Muldooni said Sunday.
Instead, park officials have turned to portable sprinklers to protect the more than 500 redwoods that hold a unique place in American history. President Abraham Lincoln, along with Yosemite Valley, set aside the forest in 1864 for “public use, resort, and recreation,” according to the park service. It was the first time the government had ordered natural areas to be protected for public benefit.
More than 150 years later, experts are working to save them. “They use a combination of removing fuel from around the base of the trees and applying sprinklers to alter the humidity around the base of the trees,” said Jay C. Nichols, a spokesperson for the interagency firefighting team at the park.
Still, the fire, which has been burning since Thursday and formally known as the Washburn Fire, has damaged some trees, which can be seen from the ground. But so far none seem to have fallen.
The National Weather Service measured temperatures Sunday afternoon in Mariposa, California, about 267 miles east of San Francisco, in the low 90s. Similar temperatures were expected early in the week.
Summer temperatures were boosted by abundant fuel, officials said. Garrett Dickman, a biologist at Yosemite National Park, explained the problem in simple terms: “There’s a lot of wood on the ground and that wood is going up in smoke.”
Wood on the ground includes dead trees and branches from a 2013-15 dieback.
“This also poses significant safety risks to firefighters” who may need to walk through unstable grounds and watch out for falling trees and branches, according to the federal incident summary.
The forest was off limits for visitors Sunday and is unlikely to reopen as long as the fire remains a threat.
The closure includes the Wawona area and Wawona Road south of Yosemite West, park officials said. The Parks south entrance was also closed. The rest of Yosemite was open, but rush hour driving required permits.
Inhabitants of the Wawona area were under mandatory evacuation orders.
Park visitor Cara Exten was told to evacuate, an order she said made perfect sense. “By the time we got to the Yosemite Valley, the ash was raining on us,” she said.
Federal crews, meanwhile, were at Mariposa Grove setting up and operating sprinklers, which Nichols said were just like the ones many people have at home, “except bigger.”
Crews paid special attention to the 209-foot Grizzly Giantthe second tallest redwood in the forest, causing the spray from the sprinklers to reach the base area.
The forest’s other stars, the California Tunnel Tree, the Bachelor and Three Graces, and Fallen Monarch, were unharmed so far.
Firefighting foil was not yet used, but it came in handy as crews defensively packed another national treasure, the Mariposa Grove Cabin used by Galen Clark. He was the guardian of the forest under Lincoln’s authority.
Erick Mendoza† Michelle Acevedo and Steven Louie contributed†