Wildfires rage in Sequoia National Park, threatening groves of giant trees, forcing closures

A pair of lightning-sparked fires that took hold in rugged terrain in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks exploded over the weekend, forcing evacuations and park closures, while firefighters made gains on the massive Dixie and Caldor fires burning to the north.

The Paradise and Colony fires in the national parks, at 1,037 acres with no containment, sent smoke billowing over the popular tourist destination and forced the closure of much of Sequoia National Park while the Kings Canyon side remained open, according to Mark Ruggiero, a public information officer for the national parks. Generals Highway, which links the two parks, is closed, and officials said visitors are expected to leave via Highway 180.

The fires, collectively called the KNP Complex, were sparked after a series of thunderstorms that rolled into the area Thursday, launching about 132 lightning strikes into the rugged terrain of the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Drought-stricken trees damaged by bark beetles are fueling the blaze, officials said.

The parks contain groves of towering giant sequoias, including the 275-foot tall General Sherman tree, considered the largest tree in the world by volume. Although the fires are not near the General Sherman tree or any of the other groves of giant trees, they are considered a “threat” to the sequoias, said Ruggiero.

“The potential is there, with the current climate and how fires have been burning these last two years,” he added. Last year’s Castle fire destroyed hundreds of towering sequoias.

Ruggiero said the giants were naturally fire-adaptive trees and needed fire to reproduce. But the ferocity of recent fires is actually stymying growth. “The fires are burning so intense,” Ruggiero said, “that it’s really affecting the sequoia population.”

The Paradise fire, burning south of the Buckeye Flat Campground, ballooned to 807 acres while the Colony fire, west of Crystal Cave Road, grew to 230 acres. Given the challenging terrain — with the Paradise fire raging at an elevation of 5,000 feet — crews attacked it from the air, officials said.

“We’ve been painting the mountains red with retardant the last couple of days,” Clay Jordan, park superintendent, said during a community meeting. “So we hit that very aggressively.”

Mandatory evacuations were issued for the Silver City and Cabin Cove area on Mineral King Road, with the the Exeter Veterans Memorial Building serving as a temporary evacuation point, the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office said.

The fires are also threatening the foothills community of Three Rivers, portions of which are under an evacuation warning.

In Northern California, firefighters appeared to be turning a corner of the monstrous Dixie fire, which has seared more than 960,000 acres across multiple counties north of Sacramento since igniting in Plumas County about two months ago.

Fewer than 100,000 acres shy of becoming the largest blaze in California history, the Dixie fire last week exploded along the northwest portion, spurring the evacuation of several rural communities as the flames lapped closer.

But by Monday morning, the blaze was 75% contained, representing an increase of 16% since Friday.

Containment of the nearly 220,000-acre Caldor fire tearing through El Dorado County also improved and was at 67% on Monday morning.

With fuels across the state critically dry amid years of relentless drought, fire continue to ignite and surge at rapid speeds.

Elsewhere in Northern California, lightning brought by intense storms cells ignited fires from El Dorado to Mendocino counties, as it hit historically dry fuels.

A fast-moving fire burned some structures Sunday afternoon near Lake Mendocino and prompted evacuations, officials said.

The Hopkins fire that ignited Sunday in Mendocino County has seared just over 250 acres near the town of Calpella, north of Santa Rosa, and is 20% contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Social media posts showed the fire engulfing some structures. As an assessment of the damage is underway, the fire continues to threaten about 200 structures, according to a report by Cal Fire. Its cause is under investigation.

Lower overnight temperatures and a boost in humidity helped firefighters get a handle on the blaze and increase containment, fire officials said.

A brush fire that erupted late Saturday afternoon and temporarily shut down the 5 Freeway in both directions near Castaic had grown to 462 acres by Monday and was 63% contained. Flames were visible along the roadway as what was dubbed the Route fire grew at a moderate speed through chaparral.

Southbound lanes on the 5 were reopened, and northbound lane closures were set to lift at 7 p.m. Monday, according to a recent incident report.

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