Yosemite’s Grove of Giant Sequoias Reopens After Month-Long Fire Closure

Park officials say that decades of prescribed burns helped keep the historic trees safe

Giant sequoia
Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias has reopened after the Washburn Fire. Faungg's Photos via Flickr under CC BY-ND 2.0

In July, the Washburn Fire burned nearly 5,000 acres in eastern California, threatening Yosemite National Park’s largest grove of giant sequoias, the rare, majestic trees that can live to be several thousand years old. Park officials had closed the Mariposa Grove, home to some 500 mature sequoias, for nearly a month because of the wildfire, which is now 100 percent contained.

Now, much of the grove has reopened to visitors, reports the Los Angeles Times’ Itzel Luna. Overjoyed that the trees survived another brush with danger, hundreds of visitors gathered to celebrate the grove’s reopening earlier this month.

“It was just a real sense of relief, a sense of excitement and celebration,” Scott Gediman, a Yosemite park ranger, tells the L.A. Times. “People were thrilled to see the Mariposa Grove and relieved a little bit because they were worried about the trees.”

After the blaze started in early July, firefighters immediately sprang into action to battle the fire and protect the iconic trees. They set up a sprinkler system within the grove to keep the trunks moist, reports the Associated Press (AP).

The cause of the Washburn Fire remains under investigation, but officials believe humans may have started the blaze, reported SFGate’s Amy Graff last month. Meanwhile, the nearby Oak Fire, which has burned more than 19,000 acres since it started near Yosemite on July 22, is now 98 percent contained.

With the Washburn Fire now completely contained, park rangers are happy to report that no sequoias died as a result of the blaze. Some trees have fire scars, but because many are 2,000 to 3,000 years old, rangers can’t be sure which fires caused the scars, per the L.A. Times.

Though firefighters continue to put out hot spots and do mop-up work, the grove has almost entirely reopened. The Washburn trail, the western section of the perimeter trail and the trail from the grove to Wawona remain off-limits to park-goers, per the park’s website. But the Grizzly Giant Loop, which takes visitors past the stately 3,000-year-old Grizzly Giant, and other popular routes are once again accessible. Visitors can marvel at the historic trees while hiking, participating in ranger-led programs and—in the winter—cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. 

Firefighter and flames
Firefighters worked to save the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias threatened by the Washburn Fire in Yosemite National Park. Photo by National Park Service via Getty Images

Wildfires, which climate change has made more intense and more frequent, have killed other sequoias in recent years: Just last year, California’s KNP Complex and Windy fires killed between 3 and 5 percent of the world’s sequoias. But when it comes to the Mariposa Grove, experts credited the strategic use of prescribed burns—intentional fires used for specific purposes—with helping to keep the trees safe.

Prescribed burns over the last 50 years have cleared highly flammable dead vegetation from around the trees. As Alejandra Borunda wrote for National Geographic last month, crews have successfully performed more than 20 prescribed burns since 1971, about one every two to three years. As a result, the forest floor inside the grove was mostly devoid of dead branches and other combustible debris, which made the flames easier for firefighters to manage.

“We’ve been preparing for the Washburn Fire for decades,” Garrett Dickman, a biologist at Yosemite, tells the AP. “It really just died as soon as it hit the grove.”