California wildfires make run toward giant sequoia groves

Western Wildfires

THREE RIVERS, Calif. (AP) — Two lightning-sparked wildfires in California merged and made a run to the edge of a grove of ancient sequoias, momentarily driving away firefighters as they try to protect the world's tallest tree by wrapping its base in protective foil.

A shift in the weather led to explosive growth on the fires in the Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada on Friday, the National Park Service said, and the flames reached the westernmost tip of the Giant Forest, where it scorched a grouping of sequoias known as the “Four Guardsmen” that mark the entrance to the grove of 2,000 sequoias.

Firefighters wrapped the base of the General Sherman Tree, along with other trees in the Giant Forest, in a type of aluminum that can withstand high heat. It wasn't immediately known how the Four Guardsmen, which received the same treatment, fared, fire spokeswoman Katy Hooper said.

The General Sherman Tree is the largest in the world by volume, at 52,508 cubic feet (1,487 cubic meters), according to the National Park Service. It towers 275 feet (84 meters) high and has a circumference of 103 feet (31 meters) at ground level.

The fires, known together as the KNP Complex, blackened 28 square miles (72 square kilometers) of forest land. Fire activity increased Friday afternoon when winds picked up and low-hanging smoke that had choked off air and limited the fire's growth in recent days lifted, Hooper said.

Firefighters who were wrapping the base of the sequoias in foil and sweeping leaves and needles from the forest floor around the trees had to flee from the danger, Hooper said. They went back Saturday when conditions improved to continue the work and start a strategic fire along Generals Highway to protect the Giant Forest grove, Hooper said.

The fires forced the evacuation of the park this week, and parts of Three Rivers, a foothill community of about 2,500 people outside the park's main entrance. Crews have been bulldozing a line between the fire and the community.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning through Sunday, saying gusts and lower humidity could create conditions for rapid wildfire spread.