A nonprofit group advocating for emergency action to reduce threats of a megablaze that could burn up the Mother Lode’s share of rare and dwindling giant sequoias in Calaveras Big Trees State Park continued calling for urgent action Friday, criticizing state parks authorities’ response to their initial call to action earlier this month.
The state has identified $7 million to invest over the next five years to further advance forest stewardship, reduce forest fuels accumulations, and restore natural fire regimes, “including areas of the park where such management has long been deferred,” Matthew Bellah, a state parks administrator whose job title is Central Field Division chief, wrote to Dr. Vida Kenk, an ecological biologist and president of the nonprofit Calaveras Big Trees Association in a letter dated Feb. 14.
The funding will help support two seasonal forestry crews, contract work crews and a deal with the U.S. Forest Service to thin and do prescribed fires on 3,000 acres, Bellah told Kenk.
Calaveras Big trees staff have treated 617 acres to reduce excessive fuel loading since 2018 to help protect the North and South Groves, home to more than 1,100 giant sequoias, and they plan to continue burning sigments in the North Grove and broadcast burn the 1,300-acre South Grove as a “priority project” in 2022, Bellah said.
Bellah is a ranger, has a law enforcement background, Central Division park superintendents report to him, and he reports to the deputy director of park operations. Staff with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s press office also did not respond to requests for comment this week.
Kenk and the nonprofit’s spokesperson, Marcie Powers, said in early February they want the state parks system “to do more in the next five months than they plan to do over the next five years.” They say plans summarized in the Feb. 14 letter from Bellah lack urgency and are inadequate to confront the emergency existing in California Big Trees State Park right now.
“We are extremely concerned that a catastrophic fire could destroy Calaveras Big Trees this fire season,” Powers said Friday in a phone interview. “A fire big enough and hot enough to kill giant sequoias in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties could do just that in the next six months.”
“We continue to believe that the state's five-year-plan to cleanup one-sixth of the park is neither fast enough nor comprehensive enough,” Kenk said Friday. “The nature of wildfire is changing. Trees that had survived eighty to a hundred fires in their lifetimes have died. The nature of fires has changed and it is urgent for us to change how we act. Business as usual in the current parks plan is not enough.”
Big Trees is the only state park with giant sequoia groves, Kenk said. The need to clear massive accumulations of fuels, thin the forest, cut down dead trees, and reduce the dense understory is urgent, Kenk said.
“We recognize that our excellent local district and park staff are doing the best they can with the limited personnel and resources they have available,” Kenk said. “That’s why we are asking for resources to be brought from throughout the state for the immediate clean-up work in the next few months.”
The Calaveras Big Trees Association wants the state to mobilize forest crews as fast as they deploy firefighters to deal with the current emergency situation existing at the park, Kenk said.
“We must act now to prevent a catastrophic fire at the only state park that preserves precious giant sequoias,” Kenk said. “If not, Big Trees is likely to become the next Big Basin.”
Powers said she and her colleagues with the Calaveras Big Trees Association know for a fact that two of the most destructive fires in California last year — the Caldor Fire that burned up the town of Caldor and more than 345 square miles of Eldorado National Forest, El Dorado and Amador counties, and threatened the densely populated Lake Tahoe basin; and the KNP Complex fires that killed hundreds of giant sequoias in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks and burned more than 135 square miles — “those fires were stopped in their tracks when they reached parts of the forest that had been cleaned up,” Powers said.
“The state is making a clear choice not to act urgently,” Powers said. “Forest experts and scientists know how to prevent catastrophic fires in giant sequoia groves. You clean up the forest. You remove the massive buildup of fuels just like in other parts of the Stanislaus National Forest. That’s the way you avoid another 2013 Rim fire or another 2015 Butte Fire.”
Kenk told the California Department of Parks and Recreation director in a Feb. 1 letter that, without immediate fire reduction actions, Calaveras Big Trees State Park and its giant sequoias could burn like Big Basin Redwoods State Park in Santa Cruz County did in June and August 2020.
The Feb. 1 letter was addressed to the state agency’s director, Armando Quintero, who did not respond to requests for comment from The Union Democrat. Quintero also did not respond to the association.
The reason the association portrays the current situation as an emergency and a crisis is because three wildfires in just the past two years have already killed or mortally burned 13% to 19% of the world’s giant sequoias.
There are about 70 groves of giant sequoias in the world on less than 45 square miles on the west slope of the Central and Southern Sierra Nevada range. Calaveras Big Trees State Park is home to more than 1,100 mature giant sequoias on about 10 square miles of overgrown forest in the North Fork Stanislaus River watershed that straddles Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.