Photos shared to social media in September 2021 showed fire officials in California wrapping “General Sherman,” the nickname of the world’s largest tree by mass, in protective fire foil.
The 2,200-year-old tree is a Sequoia. And in most years, its 103-foot circumference and 275-foot height would attract tens of thousands of visitors, according to Visit California. But the 2021 California wildfire season halted access to the Sequoia and Kings National Park after lightning struck the area. And a front-row view of some of the park’s oldest residents was not exempt.
The KNP Complex originated in two separate fires, the Paradise and Colony fires, that were sparked by lightning on Sept. 9. As of this writing, the two had merged into one large, encompassing fire that threatens park structures and many tourist favorites.
“The fire reached a small area of the Giant Forest yesterday, in the area known as the Four Guardsmen, where trees had been thoroughly prepped in recent days. The General Sherman Tree did not see fire yesterday,” wrote the park in a Sept. 18 news release.
Sequoias and other at-risk buildings are wrapped in a “house-wrapping material, kind of like aluminum-foil fabric that goes around the base of the trees,” said Operations Section Chief and firefighter Jon Wallace in a Facebook update. As ABC station KGO-TV noted, these blankets “prevent embers from getting into the tree through old fire scars.”
Fire officials said that they instituted protection and mitigation measures for all sequoia groves within the fire area, including the Giant Forest Sequoia Grove, as well as other infrastructures within the park boundaries. In addition to structure protection, Susie Heisey, a public information officer for the fire complex, told Snopes that prescribed burning in the area is what, at least in part, kept General Sherman tree standing as of this writing.
Also known as controlled burns, the U.S. Forest Service describes prescribed burns as the “application of fire by a team of fire experts under specified weather conditions to restore health to ecosystems that depend on fire.” And as publications like National Geographic and the Los Angeles Times have reported, this practice mimics an ecosystem’s natural fire cycle to protect species like the giant sequoias.
“The other benefit is that prescribed burning has been a long-standing practice in that area, and so when the fire began to encroach into the Giant Forest, flames’ lengths diminished and fire activity lessened,” she wrote in an email.
As of this writing, Sequoia National Park remains closed to the public. Kings Canyon National Park is open to the public, but experts warn “hazardous” air quality affects many of the surrounding areas.