Firefighters deploy sprinkler system to protect giant sequoias

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The wildfire burning in the southwest corner of Yosemite National Park continued to grow overnight and was measured at more than 3,200 acres, officials said Tuesday morning.

The Washburn Fire has been burning for nearly a week as nearly 550 firefighters battle to protect historic Mariposa Grove, home to more than 500 giant sequoias in the park. Crews said on Tuesday they managed to stop the flames from reaching the famous trees. Officials said the fire was 22% contained.

National Park Service spokesman Lee Byer described the firefight as “slow, steady and intense”, adding that “due to significant heavy fuels, such as large dead trees, (the fire) creates lots of heat and smoking.

Several of the grove’s ancient trees, which can live for over 2,000 years and including the popular 209-foot-tall Grizzly Giant, have been affected by the fire. Some were left with 70-foot-tall scars on their trunks, park officials said Tuesday. But no large trees were found dead.

While there are few natural barriers to help slow the fire’s spread, burn scars from previous blazes can provide some help, fire officials said.

Firefighters also deployed a sprinkler system around the redwoods, which increased humidity in the area surrounding the trees, reducing the risk of ground fires. Officials said the structure wrap is not currently used to protect trees.

“Our firefighters and resource advisors have been working around the clock to prepare Mariposa Grove should the fire burn its way in its direction. They are clearing fuel around trees, installing sprinkler systems and shrouding historic buildings in the grove to prevent damage,” Mike Theune, a park spokesman, told The Chronicle on Tuesday.

Theune added that park entrance gates are experiencing delays of up to 2 hours due to the closure of Highway 41 and asked guests to be patient with park staff. According to the park website, visitors can take highways 140 and 120 to access the entrances.

The community of Wawona and the Wawona Campgrounds, where more than 1,600 people resided, were still under mandatory evacuation as of Tuesday morning.

The cause of the fire was still under investigation, but since there was no lightning in the area, officials said the fire was likely started by human activity.

Park officials expect an increase in fire activity over the next 72 hours as hot, dry weather arrives in the region. Tuesday’s forecast calls for southwesterly winds gusting up to 15 mph with temperatures reaching up to 90 degrees.

Jordan Parker (he/him) is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: jordan.parker@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @jparkerwrites.



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