U.S. national parks face uphill battle against raging California wildfires

·2 min read
U.S. national parks face uphill battle against raging California wildfires
U.S. national parks face uphill battle against raging California wildfires
U.S. national parks face uphill battle against raging California wildfires

With California in the midst of yet another active wildfire season, the state made international headlines last week, with images of one of its famed giant sequoia trees wrapped in a protective aluminum foil.

The tree in question, the enormous and ancient General Sherman, was one of several such trees, some more than 1,500 years old, that had their bases wrapped in such a manner by firefighters in Sequoia National Park. Efforts were also made to remove potential fuels like fallen branches from around the trees, all to try and get ahead of the threat posed by the nearby KNP Complex wildfire.

A great many parks in California are badly affected by wildfires. One reason is simple: There are an astounding nine national parks in the state, totalling 2.5 million hectares, more than four times the area of Prince Edward Island.

California national parks
California national parks

The presence of so many large national parks has had an inadvertent effect on the state's wildfire risk. Since being formed more than a century ago, the parks' planners intended them to be left in as much a natural state as possible, a mindset eventually extended to all state land.

Over time, with little human interaction, fallen branches and other wildfire fuel built up. Before the 20th Century, an average 1.7 million hectares of land would burn annually.

California wildfires since 1878
California wildfires since 1878

That number dropped drastically as more land came to be protected and fire suppression efforts became swifter. But in recent decades, a number of factors have converged to raise fire danger to dangerous levels.

The California of today, already a relatively arid place compared to other parts of the U.S., has been plagued by extreme drought conditions for the past 20 years, peaking in 2014 but remaining high since then.

California drought monitor late September
California drought monitor late September

Not helping matters is an infestation of the mountain pine beetle, which has destroyed a good chunk of lodgepole pine distribution across western North America over the past decade. In California, that amounts to around 129 million dead pine trees, just waiting to go up in flames at the slightest spark.

Over time, it all adds up: California has seen a 900 per cent increase in burn area since 1984. Over the last 10 years, California has seen around 5 per cent of parkland burn, including as much as 70 per cent of Lassen Volcanic National Park this year.

California wildfire stats since 2012
California wildfire stats since 2012

The problem has become so acute that the federal government has committed to clearing up excessive wildfire fuel from 400,000 hectares of forest by 2025. In the meantime, it's all firefighters can to do keep a handle on wildfires as climate change continues and drought conditions become more common.

Thumbnail image source: National Parks Service/Twitter

With files from Kevin MacKay

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