By Brian Melley
The Associated Press
SEQUOIA CREST, CALIF. » Ashtyn Perry was barely as tall as the shovel she stomped into barren ground where a wildfire last year ravaged the California mountain community of Sequoia Crest and destroyed dozens of its signature behemoth trees.
The 13-year-old with a broad smile and a braid running to her waist had a higher purpose that — if successful — she’ll never live to see: to plant a baby sequoia that could grow into a giant and live for millennia.
“It’s really cool knowing it could be a big tree in like a thousand years,” she said.
The bright green seedling that barely reached Perry’s knees is part of an unusual project to plant offspring from some of the largest and oldest trees on the planet to see if the genes that allowed the parent to survive so long will protect new growth from the perils of climate change.
The effort led by the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, a Michigan nonprofit that preserves the genetics of old-growth trees, is one of many extraordinary measures being taken to save giant sequoias that were once considered nearly fireproof but are at risk of being wiped out by more intense wildfires.
The giant sequoia is the world’s largest tree by volume and closely related to the redwood, the world’s tallest. Sequoias grow naturally only in a 260-mile belt of forest on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. They have a massive trunk and can grow more than 300 feet tall. The coast redwood is more slender and is native near the Pacific Ocean in Northern California.
Giant sequoias — and redwoods — are some of the best fire-adapted plants. Thick bark protects their trunks, and their canopies can be so high they are out of reach of flames. Sequoias even rely on fire to help open their cones to disperse seeds, and flames clear undergrowth so seedlings can take root and get sunlight.
In recorded history, large sequoias had never been incinerated before 2015. Destruction of the majestic trees hit unprecedented levels last year when 10% to 14% of the estimated 75,000 trees larger than 4 feet in diameter burned. Thousands more potentially were lost this year during fires that burned into 27 groves — about a third of all groves.
An initial assessment released Tuesday by Sequoia National Forest said the Windy fire killed hundreds of giant sequoias and many more burned trees may not survive. Scientists are still tallying the damage in neighboring Sequoia National Park from a different lightning-sparked fire.
Climate change and a century of policies emphasizing extinguishing wild land blazes rather than letting some burn to prevent bigger future fires are to blame, said Christy Brigham, chief of resource management and science at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Hotter droughts have led to more intense fires that have burned through fuels accumulated through fire suppression.
Last year’s destruction to the sequoias brought Brigham to tears.
“They’re so big and so old and so individual and iconic and quirky that even people who don’t love trees, love them. They speak for all the trees,” Brigham said. “The fact that we’ve now created fires that they can’t survive is very heartbreaking.”
To save the trees this year, extreme measures were taken, including wrapping trunks of the largest trees in a fire-resistant foil, setting up sprinklers, raking the flammable matter from around the trees and even using gel in the canopies to repel flames.
But those labor-intensive measures are not practical, Brigham said. More needs to be done before fire approaches, including thinning vegetation and using prescribed burns to reduce the buildup of vegetation. They are also thinking about replanting.
One of the areas that burned intensely last year was the Alder Creek grove, where the Sequoia Crest community has stood since the middle of last century. Half the 100 homes and cabins were destroyed, leaving empty concrete foundations next to charred tree stumps. Some blackened giants still stand sentry on steep hillsides in the area, 150 miles north of Los Angeles.
It was in that grove, one of the few privately owned, that Archangel had gathered cones and taken clippings over the past decade to clone and preserve the genes of two of the oldest and largest trees. One of those trees, named Stagg, the world’s fifth-largest, survived while the fire killed one named Waterfall.
“Talk about divine providence,” said David Milarch, cofounder of Archangel. “Little did we know that Waterfall would burn down two years ago and we’d have the only seedlings of that tree.”
Milarch’s mission is to archive the genetics of ancient trees, breed them and replant them. He believes the oldest trees have superior genes that enabled them to live through drought, disease and fire and will give their offspring a better chance of survival.
When Milarch took clippings and cones from Stagg and Waterfall, the grove was still privately owned. But it was bought two years ago by Save the Redwoods League.
The league is already replanting in the grove to study if seedlings can survive where high severity fire destroyed any ability for trees to naturally reproduce, said Joanna Nelson, science director for the organization.
While Nelson wouldn’t rule out using seedlings from Stagg, estimated to be 3,000 years old, the project is designed to find the best genetic diversity to increase their survival.
“That genetic makeup served that tree very well for the past 3,000 years,” Nelson said. “However, we know that the next 3,000 years are going to be more difficult — in terms of warming and drying land and air and bigger wildfires that are more frequent. We have conditions coming that these trees haven’t experienced.”