The author beside a giant sequoia during the 2021 KNP Complex
The author beside a giant sequoia during the 2021 KNP Complex
The author beside a giant sequoia during the 2021 KNP Complex (Photo: Grayson Schaffer)

To Save Sequoias from Wildfire, We Must Save Them from Ourselves


Once thought to be basically immortal, giant sequoias are dying in droves as fires burn bigger, hotter, and longer than at any other point in human history. Protecting them is possible, but managing western woods is a Pandora’s box of tough choices.


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It’s not like my family actually went through the exercise of picking a spirit tree for each of us, but if we had, my parents would have picked coastal redwoods. My dad grew up in Larkspur, California, on San Francisco Bay, in a house built beneath redwoods so big that he, his three brothers, and his sister couldn’t have linked arms around them. My mom met my dad in Arcata, on California’s northern coast, where they went to Humboldt State University. Poor and crafty, and anxious to prove that they could make their way in the world, both took a job with an old logger who sold restored redwood timber. My mom graded milled boards according to the clarity and straightness of the grain. My dad salvaged old-growth trees that other loggers had cut and then left behind because they were too hard to recover.

He once used a choker cable and an International flatbed to pull a log thicker than an Airstream out of a ravine. The log was so heavy that the truck’s front wheels rose off the ground, threatening to flip my dad and the whole operation ass over teakettle. When he tells the story, he pretends he’s a Looney Tunes character, driving along happy and ignorant until suddenly he realizes there’s no ground beneath him.

If my brother, Garrett, picked a tree now, it would be a sequoia.

It’s a year and half before the Washburn Fire would blow up up near Yosemite National Park’s famed Mariposa Grove of sequoias in mid-July of 2022, and Garrett is inside the hollowed-out trunk of a sequoia that burned in the Castle Fire. That fire, which started outside Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks on August 19, 2020, spread across 174,000 acres of the Sierra Nevada. The cavity at the base of the tree is so large, you could park a Fiat inside. “I may be the only person to have ever stood inside a snag like this one,” Garrett says, marveling as he looks up through the charred pipe at the blue sky above.

Floating through the Grand Canyon is often thought of as a trip through time, because you drift past rocks that were there when the earth formed 4.5 billion years ago. Walking through a giant sequoia grove is like this, too, your surroundings connecting you to a distinctly ancient age. The trees are living dinosaurs, almost literally. They are the direct descendants of one of only a few species that survived the impact of an asteroid 66 million years ago, an event that shifted the global climate and wiped out the thunder lizards. The sequoias’ lineage chugged along just fine in the millions of years since. The big ones are more than 300 feet tall and 100 feet around at the base. Their bark is two feet thick. The oldest have been alive more than 3,000 years and look like it, with gnarled limbs the size of mature sugar pines. Over a sequoia’s lifetime, its top might break and fall off, or a fire might burn a cave-like hole in the trunk, a hundred feet off the ground. Some grow straight up until a natural occurrence, like a lightning strike, forces them to turn sideways for a few decades, making trunks the shape of U’s or T’s or J’s. Each is an individual, and delightfully quirky.

No plant or animal has had so profound and immediate an impact on modern conservation. The trees led to the creation of the Park Service. In 1864, just 12 years after marauding gringos first stumbled into a sequoia grove during the violent apex of manifest destiny, President Abraham Lincoln and California protected the Mariposa Grove, home to 500 sequoias, and Yosemite Valley. Tourists traveled west to see this most exotic form of life. “They will be more prized and treasured a thousand years hence than now, should they, by extreme care and caution, be preserved so long,” wrote Horace Greeley, publisher of the New-York Tribune, after seeing them for the first time.

It seems that neither our caution nor our care has been extreme enough. The 50,000 to 80,000 sequoias that remain grow naturally in roughly 70 sites dotting the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Legacy fire management and climate change have doomed them to burn catastrophically. Over the course of its 1,500-year lifetime, the snag Garrett is standing under has seen 100 or so smaller fires, fires that an elk could comfortably graze near or that a person could hopscotch over. But modern superfires can spread across areas bigger than some eastern states, with flames one and a half times as tall as this tree used to be. After something on the order of 200 million years on the planet, what Garrett has just called the biggest and best thing to ever exist is now dying by man’s neglect.

Garrett’s eyes are closed, and he’s feeling around under the sequoia’s bark, checking for a pulse. He’d felt it before, on a living specimen felled by a windstorm, water pumping in great volumes from the roots toward a crown wilted on the ground, but he won’t find one on this tree, or any of the 10,000 other giants now standing black and lifeless in the drainage below him. Four months ago, more than 20 percent of all giant sequoias remaining lived right here. Now it seems like I could count those that remain on both of my hands.

 

Garrett and I fought our first fire together. Back then we were teenagers backpacking through Tuolumne, and we came upon a lightning strike in the wilderness. Keen students of Smokey Bear, we used our bootheels to cut a line around the smoldering patch of duff no larger than a kiddie pool and kept hiking.

Garrett’s 40 now, and he’s the head forest ecologist at Yosemite. He’s also a pragmatist, with, as he describes it, “a childish inability to observe my own emotions.” As his younger brother, I know this isn’t exactly accurate, but he’s circling in on the truth. Ask him how he came to work in Yosemite and it would never occur to him that the near annual backpacking trips our family took there when we were kids, hiking for weeks through Tuolumne and the Valley, gave him plenty of reasons to want to return. Nor will he mention that our grandmother spent her youth there, lounging on rocks in the Merced River and flirting with young men soon bound for Germany or Japan. His account of how he became a Yosemite lifer is that he finished his master’s degree in restoration ecology during the 2008 recession, and the only job he could get was one he didn’t want: weeding in national parks.

In hindsight, Garrett would come to see his and the National Park Service’s war on invasive weeds as a prelude to the climate-change fight he’ll play a central role in for the rest of his career. Invasive plants boxing out the natives are an early sign that all is not well in Eden. For six years, Garrett used a chainsaw, Roundup, and his capacious plant knowledge to rid the West’s greatest national parks of salt cedar and other invasives. He became Yosemite’s vegetation ecologist in 2013. Officially, his job is to help direct the management of every plant inside the park’s 1,187 square miles. Because wildfires mostly burn foliage, his role also makes him an essential piece of the park’s fire-management program. Together, my brother and other specialists try to promote good fires and prevent bad ones.

Garrett never expected wildfires to pose a serious threat to giant sequoias. “They fell over,” he says, describing how the big trees used to die. It wasn’t until 2015 that there was cause for alarm about fires threatening monarch sequoias, as the giant trees that seed the next generation are known. That year, the Rough Fire killed approximately 101 monarchs in and around Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Two years later, another set of fires killed 110 more. Between 2013 and 2020, Garrett became the guy the Park Service sent when sequoias were threatened by fire. After ten such burns, he’d earned a reputation as the only plant expert willing to place himself before the advancing flames. His teams now include as many as 100 people. Three times he has orchestrated a response in Yosemite’s groves after fires forced him to evacuate his home in El Portal, a Park Service company town near the Arch Rock entrance to the Valley. While his wife, Erin, who also works in the park, whisked their infant to safer environs, Garrett headed for the big trees.

Over time he pioneered methods for protecting sequoias from fire. He wrapped them with fire shelters to keep embers off their trunks. He equipped the groves with sprinkler systems to increase humidity and decrease fire intensity. He mucked out the limbs and leaf litter that piled in the trunk caves from previous fires—called cat faces because of how they look—so the trees wouldn’t become chimneys. Once he asked smoke jumpers to climb 200 feet to the top of a burning sequoia to spray water into a fire inside the trunk. Despite these efforts, by the time snow finally brought California’s 2020 fire season to an end in late December, the future of the giant sequoia looked shockingly bleak. One out of every five giants has died in the past two years alone. The math on how long those that remain might keep standing isn’t hard.

“Five years ago, nobody would have done any of the shit I’ve been doing,” Garrett says. “Now it’s pretty clear that if we don’t, there won’t be any left to show our kids.”

Last spring, Garrett called to ask if I’d help him make a film to get the word out. So it was that my brother and I began a project to document what happened to the trees over the course of the 2021 fire season.

Garrett Dickman, Yosemite’s forest ecologist, in the burn scar of the Castle Fire, which killed more than 10,000 giant sequoias in May 2021
Garrett Dickman, Yosemite’s forest ecologist, in the burn scar of the Castle Fire, which killed more than 10,000 giant sequoias in May 2021 (Talweg Creative)
Joe Suarez, superintendent of the Arrowhead Hotshots, in the Grant Grove of Sequoia–Kings Canyon National Parks
Joe Suarez, superintendent of the Arrowhead Hotshots, in the Grant Grove of Sequoia–Kings Canyon National Parks (Talweg Creative)

It’s near midnight in October 2021, and I’m watching flames pull themselves up the folded bark of a giant sequoia thicker than most bridge pylons. I’m walking down a fire line the width of a sidewalk, a few miles south of the entrance to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, that descends a ridge on the northern edge of the KNP Complex, a surly 88,307-acre blaze spreading toward the highest concentration of giant sequoias anywhere on the planet, a grove dubbed Redwood Canyon. Complex is the term used when two or more fires merge, and this one had already burned near Giant Forest and Muir Grove, the centerpieces of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. The KNP Complex was threatening to repeat the destruction caused by the Castle Fire, this time in the world’s best-known groves.

Joe Suarez, superintendent of the Arrowhead Hotshots, a crew based in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, invited me and two cameramen to shoot tonight’s operation, because nobody had ever filmed sequoias torching before—burning from the ground up. Like the famous Robert Capa photo of a loyalist soldier being shot through the heart during the Spanish Civil War, perhaps the sight of 200-foot flames engulfing a majestic giant will prompt the public and politicians to make the changes necessary to save the park’s oldest trees.

All around me, hotshots hold drip torches and lean on hand tools, standing with their backs to the flames and daydreaming aloud about the trips they’ll take when fire season ends. This is a backburn, a controlled blaze set to reduce the amount of fuel in the path of an advancing wildfire. At the moment, that wildfire is in the canyon below. Watching fire run through sequoias is like watching water return to a desert arroyo that hasn’t been wet in a hundred years. After a century of aggressive fire suppression, the groves are parched.

The biggest sequoias are more than 300 feet tall and 100 feet around at the base. Their bark is two feet thick. The oldest have been alive more than 3,000 years and look like it, with gnarled limbs the size of mature sugar pines.

Sequoia cones look like bonbons. They hold 200 seeds each. When a fire burns at the tree’s base, the waxy sap that holds the cones tight melts, and the seeds slip out, floating down through the smoke in the tens of thousands. Sometimes every seed lands in the flames and all that genetic material cooks. Every once in a while, a few or even a great many seeds land where the fire has cleared the ground to expose bare mineral soil. When the heat has cooled and the winter rains have returned, sequoia seedlings push out through the ash and grow faster than almost all their competitors. They’re like weeds. After some fires, they grow thick like carpets. You can’t fit a boot between the stalks. Yet most little trees die sooner rather than later, because for the decade or two after the fire, the climate is too hot, or too dry, or too cold, or there’s not enough light, or another fire passes through and torches the babies before any individual sapling has grown tall enough to escape low flames or develop bark thick enough to withstand a fire’s heat. But for an individual monarch to fulfill its obligation to the species, it only requires that in its 2,000-to-3,000-year life, just one of the many millions of seeds it produces reaches maturity, which takes about 300 years. Sequoias’ survival strategy is a low-odds proposition, one that relies on realities that are changing faster than the species can adapt.

Scientists recently observed that, intentional or not, sequoias regulate fire intensity by raising the humidity in the grove. They dump some of the 500 gallons of water they slurp up daily through their roots back into the atmosphere through their stomata, the cells in the foliage that trees use to trade water for carbon dioxide. It used to be that a fire would burn hot beneath some trees and cooler beneath others.  It used to be that, on the special day when a fire finally came, odds were good that at least one monarch in a grove was going to get lucky.

The seeds are falling from the giant now. Some may very well sprout in the spring (and then die because of the drought), but they may be sprouting beneath dead monarchs that produced them. If the humidity is higher in the grove tonight, it may not matter. Suddenly there’s a roar, like the sound of a jet taking off. The world pulses orange, and a young sequoia disappears behind a curtain of 150-foot flames. The hotshot nearest me cranes his neck, tracking the confetti of sparks as they drift upward. Embers mingle briefly with the stars before wafting into the canyon below.

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Garrett wasn’t with me on the KNP Complex. He was working the Windy Fire, a 97,000-acre blaze burning at the southern end of the sequoias’ range. He was assessing whether firefighters had a chance of saving any of the 11 groves the Windy threatened. At one point, he and his crew drove ahead of the fire to Starvation Creek Grove, where they cut smaller sugar pines and white firs out from under the giants. They had cleared just four sequoias when a fire chief radioed Garrett and told him to “get out now.” The fire had jumped its containment lines; the crew drove back to camp with a wall of flames flanking the truck.

When Garrett returned to Starvation Creek a week later, the fire’s head had moved on. Wind twisted dust devils of ash through smoldering oaks. Using a chainsaw, he cut and moved the trees that had fallen across the road. Long before he reached the grove, he saw black sequoias silhouetted against the blue skyline, smoke corkscrewing off their tops. Of the 160 trees in the grove, only the four his team cleared had survived. The others were like police chalk outlines, Garrett said. “No needles. No cones. Branches gone.”

It’s late May in 2021, and Joe, the Arrowhead Hotshots superintendent, is pouring diesel from a drip torch around the base of a sugar pine. Tourists, by far the most dangerous thing out here, drive by, gawking at the white smoke wafting lazily up the walls of El Capitan.

It’s no secret that the best way to deal with wildfires is to reduce the available fuel. But few land managers have the appetite for risk that a prescribed fire involves, and fewer still have the patience or staff needed to get the work done on a meaningful scale. Prescribed fires were used on 35,000 acres in California last year; wildfires burned 2.5 million.

It took Yosemite’s fire staff three years to prepare for this 200-acre burn. There’d been talk of doing a similar one in the Merced Grove of sequoias since the 1970s. Prescribed burns require compliance with environmental laws, and surveys for endangered species and archaeological artifacts must be performed, which can take years to complete. They also demand a uniquely desirable set of weather conditions: dry enough to carry fire, but not so dry that it escapes; windy enough to transport the smoke away from nearby communities, but not so windy that the flames explode. When Joe started his career in the 1990s, California had two burning seasons, spring and fall. Now fall is the peak fire season. Statewide, there’s something on the order of ten days a year when the weather is safe enough for a prescribed burn. This is one of those days, and like most of them, conditions changed far too quickly.

By the afternoon of the second day, spot fires had bloomed outside the burn area at the base of El Capitan, and firefighters shut the operation down well short of the acreage goal. The short-term risk was too great. Three and a half million tourists visited Yosemite Valley last year, and this iconic landscape hosts a billion dollars’ worth of infrastructure. Firefighters thus far had been successful at keeping destructive fires out; better to gamble that they could do so again than risk the public relations shitstorm that would result from accidentally burning any of the Valley’s assets. People can accept disasters they consider natural. Accidents are another matter.

Joe shrugged at the news that they were shutting down the burn. It was to be expected. In California, prescribed fire is mostly a talking point brought up by fire journalists like me. Joe started fighting fires in 1994. In the nearly three decades since, he’s fought several hundred of them and watched as they morphed into something new and terrifying. He worked the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire, which triggered a security fiasco when it threatened New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, hitting the town instead and causing $1 billion in damage. He was on the line when the Camp Fire razed Paradise, California, in 2018 (at least 85 dead; 14,000 homes lost) and when burns torched the Napa wine country in 2017 (44 dead; 8,900 homes lost) and leveled suburbs on the central coast that same year (two dead; 1,000 homes lost), San Diego in 2003 (15 dead; 2,323 homes lost), and Redding in 2018 (8 dead; 1,000 homes lost). He fought a blaze that topped a million acres—the 2021 Dixie Fire—and witnessed the first fires in recorded history to burn all the way from California’s Central Valley up and over the crest of the Sierra Nevada. He’d fought the Rough Fire, which first caught scientists’ attention about the vulnerability of monarchs, and the Castle Fire soon after. I’d written about most of those burns, using them as examples of the worsening fire crisis in the West. Joe had lived them. Life on the line was taking its toll.

“What nature’s doing isn’t natural,” he says.

Joe tried to quit hotshotting two years ago, after Bryan Hughes, a fellow crew member and a close friend, died when the Arrowhead Hotshots were fighting to keep the Ferguson Fire out of Yosemite. The top of a snag killed by drought and beetles broke free and fell on his head. Joe took a year off after Hughes’s death to figure out how not to blame himself for a tragedy he did nothing to cause. The year proved to be a failure in that regard, and he came back to fire because this world is his world and these people are his people. It hasn’t been easy.

“I don’t want to say it’s not as fun as it used to be,” Joe says. “But maybe we always felt like we won, and we’re losing now.”

Garrett and Christy Brigham, the director of science at Sequoia and Kings Canyon, are standing in front of an outhouse that firefighters saved from the Castle Fire, sitting in the patchy shade of a 2,000-year-old dead tree that they did not. Firefighters protect life and property before all else—even holes to shit in, so long as they have walls around them. Listening to the two compare notes on their jobs makes clear that the fate of giant sequoias is almost entirely in the hands of a few middle managers, working at a few select parks, who navigate arcane environmental laws and a financing system cobbled together with public grants. If sequoia death is a product of American gridlock, sequoia survival will happen because of the tenacity of a few individuals.

Garrett and Christy’s conversation underscores the reality of their work and lives. They touch on how a hundred years of fire suppression and the forced end to Indigenous burning utterly changed the Sierra’s forests, from places with widely spaced trees and limited underbrush that burned at low intensity every 15 to 30 years to crowded tinderboxes that can go nuclear at any moment. How a logging industry that boomed and then went bust instituted a replanting regime that prioritized quick-growing pines and transformed much of the Sierra, once home to some of the world’s most biodiverse forests, into a monoculture of trees roughly the same size and age. How sheep and cattle wandered the mountains, denuding them of the grasses that carried low-intensity fires. How young saplings that wouldn’t have survived the more frequent blazes grew tall and spindly and close together, until the competition for limited water led to a beetle outbreak that doomed 163 million trees between 2010 and 2019. How all those trees that died standing are now falling over, creating enormous piles of kindling under trees that survived the previous drought but are now dying because the current drought is more intense than any experienced in California in 1,200 years. How power lines and campers are providing sparks that ignite entire mountainsides at the worst, windiest moments. How politicians gut the administrative state, pouring trillions into the military while tightening the relatively small budgets of land management agencies who were facing problems that were growing insurmountable. How the effects of climate change arrived 80 years earlier than anybody expected. And how all this explains why high-intensity fires are burning four times more frequently than they did a century ago.

“These next couple of years could be bad in ways we haven’t experienced yet,” Garrett says. The Park Service knows what’s coming. After 60 years trying to walk backward by managing their lands to be what conservationist Starker Leopold, who devised the agency’s guiding philosophy from the late 1960s until 2021, called “vignettes of primitive America,” the Park Service has changed course to officially recognize that park managers must intervene in ways considered antithetical to their mission two years earlier. The new policy asks the public to open its mind to everything from mechanical thinning to very limited logging. “We saw how it goes when you don’t do anything,” Christy says. “It goes terribly. It goes thousands of 2,000-year-old trees burned up in an instant.”

“We don’t get to have nice things anymore,” Garrett says.

One out of every five giants has died in the past two years alone. “Five years ago, nobody would have done any of the shit I’ve been doing,” Garrett says. “Now it’s pretty clear that if we don’t, there won’t be any left to show our kids.”

Recently, the Park Service gave both Garrett and Christy awards recognizing their forward-looking work to preserve sequoias. Garrett’s strategy is to expand firebreaks and prep forests for prescribed burns and wildfires with limited, targeted thinning. To insulate Yosemite from the worst fires, he’s starting with the 50 miles of roads that run between the park’s sequoias and the flammable foothills to the west, where the most destructive recent fires originated. In eight months, the logger he contracted trucked out 14,000 tons of biomass, most of it drought-killed trees, to co-gen plants that burned the vegetation to generate power for 1,300 homes for a year. They’ve covered just six miles of roadway, cutting back 200 feet from the pavement. The project, which cost $19 million and will take seven years to complete, is exactly what needs to be done to brace the sequoias against future fires. (Scaling this to the nine million acres of California forests in need of restoration would cost $9 billion and take nine years.)

Meanwhile, in the parks she oversees, Christy wants to plant sequoia seedlings in a wilderness grove where the Castle Fire burned with such intensity that reseeding failed. Without intervention, the grove’s sequoias could be erased from the landscape forever. She’s also considering using seeds from more drought-resistant trees in the southernmost groves. But making a future forest that looks something like the past still requires complying with environmental laws, even in an era that Christy sees as a crisis.

“The Clean Water Act. The National Environmental Policy Act. The National Historic Preservation Act. The Threatened and Endangered Species Act. Fantastic laws all of them,” Christy says. “But they were built at a time when the main threat was people doing bad things—logging, mining. Now the main threat is inaction. Bureaucracy is slow. Wildfire is fast. And bureaucracy needs to get a hell of a lot faster if we want to persist and not lose everything we’ve got left.”

That night Christy went home; Garrett and I slept under the giant sequoias. It was cold. We built a warming fire and kept it small by burning just a few sticks.

 

Fire in California is an apex predator. When the system is balanced, it burns the young and the weak. When it’s out of balance, as it is now, you can build boxes to keep fire out and boxes to keep fire in, but controlling the beast can prove impossible when it’s starving and everything is on the menu.

The General Sherman giant sequoia, getting an inspection by Park Service personnel during the KNP Complex
The General Sherman giant sequoia, getting an inspection by Park Service personnel during the KNP Complex (Eric Paul Zamora-Pool/Getty)

I’m huddled in the windbreak created by my rental truck as fist-size embers blow across the blacktop. They skip the road, tinkling like glass shards. The backburn sank off the hill, and I’m on the road Joe hopes to use to box in the KNP Complex. It’s not going well. Heat rising from the wildfire below mixes with wind blowing downslope off the ridge behind us, and the air swirls in alternating circles. Suddenly, embers caught in a small tornado twist across the road. A dead log ignites. The hotshots scramble. Four scale a cliff with a hose and douse the log before the fire establishes itself on both sides of the crew.

They catch the spot, drowning it in an engine’s worth of water, but they won’t catch all of them. The fire has gained momentum. It’s now barreling up a canyon so thick with drought-killed trees and drought-weakened sequoias that the heat punches a smoke column up through an inversion at three in the morning. As the smoke rises, the fire rises with it.

My final view of Redwood Canyon is from an overlook on the road. I lean on a rock wall and look down in silence as sequoias torch one by one. They start slow. The fire crawls into the base of the pines that serve as fuel ladders. The sequoia’s lower branches catch, then the upper branches. The entire tree is engulfed, and flames curl 30 feet above the treetop, a pillar of fire more than 300 feet high. I can hear the torching from half a mile away.

 

Trees sequester 70 percent of the carbon they store in the last half of their lives. Monarch sequoias, and their close cousin the coastal redwood, are capable of storing more carbon than any other trees on the planet. A mature monarch can lock up as much carbon as 250 trees of another species. And just like those other species, monarchs release it when they burn.

Preston Leslie is the logger Garrett hired to remove the small trees in the forests downhill of Mariposa Grove. He’s driving through his project, past piles of logs cut from the park. A line of traffic is backed up behind his flagger, and a feller buncher—a type of logging harvester—is below the cars, cutting still more trees.

Preston, who is 50, grew up logging here. He drove trucks on dirt roads at 14, and he loves telling stories of the good old days, when there were hundreds of mills in California. There are now around 30. He considers himself an environmentalist, but “not the kind you’re thinking of,” he says. In his estimation, the logging he does saves California’s forests by thinning them out before fire comes. He correctly (albeit incompletely) blames the spotted owl and the Clinton administration for the demise of logging on public lands, while neglecting the part where the Senate passed the Endangered Species Act unanimously in 1973, at least in part because loggers had spent the previous century decimating forests with no ethical regard for the land. Big timber got rich; the public paid the price. And one by-product of those ugly years of government-supported excess is a modern environmental movement that still sees any chainsaws in the woods as a return to the lawless past.

The work Preston is doing for Garrett earns his company $9,000 a day for a crew of nine running five harvesting machines and two trucks. It’s a considerable reduction from what he makes selling the timber he harvests off public lands that he leases from the Forest Service. But unlike logging, the work is steady.

“Garrett works his magic with the grants, so I get guaranteed money,” Preston says. “I could be making more if the Forest Service got off their asses and put more timber up for sale, but they don’t.”

The fate of giant sequoias is almost entirely in the hands of a few middle managers, working at a few select parks, who navigate arcane environmental laws and a financing system cobbled together with public grants.

His vision of a better future would place underemployed loggers in depressed timber towns, where they’d be put back to work in the woods—not logging but “cleaning up this disaster zone,” Preston says. It happens that this vision closely matches Garrett and Christy’s. It happens too that California’s government largely agrees. Last year, state officials put aside $536 million for projects like Mariposa Grove. Meanwhile, last spring the Biden administration funded an executive order telling land-management agencies to greatly increase the pace and scale of projects that encompass whole landscapes—fuel reduction followed by prescribed fires—and the Forest Service issued a ten-year plan that prioritizes, at least on paper, fire resilience over suppression.

These decrees don’t alter environmental laws, of course, nor do they change the zeitgeist of conservation groups and a general public whose ideas about wilderness protection haven’t advanced past the 1960s. Those ideas tend to refer to a place that exists outside the influence of man. There has never been such a place in this country, and there certainly isn’t now.

Change will come slowly. It will require environmentalists still fighting the battles of the past to either adapt or, more likely, age out. In the short term, their resistance will cause improvement to arrive too late to preserve many places threatened by destruction. Some believe that’s OK, that nature will find its balance. And that when it does, it will be the right balance for the generations to come. What scares me about that perspective—call it denialism—is that it ignores both the science that says nature is fast becoming toxic for our species and nearly all others, and the simple truth that targeted actions lessen the impact of climate change on all living beings.

On an early afternoon in May 2022 near my home in New Mexico. I’m pushing my five-year-old son, Bridger, on a rope swing hung from a ponderosa pine that’s as big as any tree in the state. Sepia light filters through smoke from one of many ongoing burns that will soon make this year the state’s worst on record for fires. Our family will evacuate in a few days. Every so often, my phone buzzes with a text from a concerned friend. (“It’s so devastating,” “Let us know how we can help.”)

“What’s your story about?” Bridger asks. I’ve been working a lot lately.

“It’s about sequoias.”

“What about them?”

“How they’re dying.”

“Oh, like you get to go out and see big fires, like the one over there?” The Cerro Pelado Fire started a week ago and is now five miles from our house. Bridger used to have nightmares about fires. Now his younger sister, Tallie, is having them, too.

“I do,” I say. “How do you feel about that?”

“I don’t want you to go near them.”

“I only take pictures and write down notes about the big trees before they die.”

“Mmm. I want to see the sequoias before they’re gone.”

“I want you to see them.”

“Hey Dada?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you think our house is going to burn?

“I don’t know, Bridge.”

“OK. Can I take this stick and throw it off the swing?”

“Yeah, you can do that.”

Christy Brigham, director of science at Sequoia–Kings Canyon National Parks
Christy Brigham, director of science at Sequoia–Kings Canyon National Parks (Talweg Creative)
Preston Leslie driving near Yosemite National Park’s Mariposa Grove
Preston Leslie driving near Yosemite National Park’s Mariposa Grove (Talweg Creative)

It’s November 2021, a month after the KNP Complex finally went out, and I’m in an airplane going back to Redwood Canyon. I’m not a war correspondent, but reporting on fires and climate disaster can be brutal. I wrote a story about the horrific fire that killed 19 hotshots in Arizona in 2013. Collecting testimonies from their wives and families has haunted me since, and the fire stories I wrote after never got much easier. Most involved death.

This story doesn’t, at least not yet, and I’m grateful for that. Heading back to Redwood Canyon to count the dead sequoias, as we are now, feels grim enough. Bearing witness to the mass death of trees that rooted when there were only about 50 million people on the planet feels like watching California being brought to its knees.

Should giant sequoias disappear, they’ll vanish along with the forests they’re part of. And when the forests go, it seems impossible to me that a story about dead trees doesn’t become a story about dead people.

After flying over the Sierra Nevada, my view from the passenger seat is of the Central Valley. Tonight it’s aglow. The entire state is powered by electricity that moves through metal wires strung from dams in the mountains, running across the most flammable environment in the world and terminating in cities on the coast. Forty million people live in California, more than any other state. On a given day, many of them are shuttling around in cars powered by fire, holding fire in their pockets, cooking with fire in their homes. In the past decade, one in every eight acres in California burned, most of it after fires jumped out of peoples’ hands and hit the land. Yet land managers regularly fail to take advantage of the fleeting opportunities to ignite prescribed fires, with hundreds of professional firefighters standing by, out of fear of what might happen if those fires burn out of control. Most don’t, but some do. Two did in New Mexico this spring, the Calf Canyon–Hermit’s Peak Fire, causing the biggest burn in state history, nearly 350,000 acres. This particular error was egregious, and litigation is imminent. Several hundred homes were lost.

Fire in California is an apex predator. When the system is balanced, it burns the young and the weak. When it’s out of balance, as it is now, controlling the beast can prove impossible when it’s starving and everything is on the menu.

The Forest Service has identified 82 million acres of its forests that require restoration to get back to the way they were when white men first laid eyes on them (a misguided reference point but, this being America, the one we use). The reality is, most of that land will never be restored. There’s too much work, too few skilled workers to do it, too much risk to light the prescribed fires, and Congress won’t pay for it anyway. There’s also the fact that the de facto agency in charge of prescribed fires refuses to lead on the issue. Forest management is a Pandora’s box of bad choices. Rather than offering this hard but necessary explanation to the public after the New Mexico disaster, the Forest Service issued a shortsighted, politically expedient national moratorium on prescribed burning that will change nothing.

In the absence of the will or courage needed to shape our forests in a way that will allow us to live with fire, what will happen is exactly what’s happening (again) in Yosemite right now. Despite firefighters’ heroic efforts and extraordinary expense, fires are going to keep blasting holes in the woods in increments of a million, quarter-million, and half-million acres. At some unknown point in the future, the new forests will be so broken up by fire scars that fires will self-regulate and get smaller again, because the fuel will no longer be as continuous. By then towns and infrastructure in the way will have burned. The composition of animals and plants in the woods will have been completely rearranged. Many will have gone extinct. Nature will have regained a new balance.

And yet, inevitability is no case for inaction.

 

At six in the morning the day after my flight, it’s raining hard in the Central Valley. In the mountains, where I’m headed, it’s dumping snow. But the foothills are green under the peach orchards and live oaks, and it feels like a completely different place than it did a month ago, when the grass was brown and brittle and the Central Valley was so thick with smoke that it hurt to inhale.

The guys I’m making the documentary with are playing a podcast about a website that teaches people how to commit suicide. I can’t listen. The topic makes me squirm. So I put on headphones and distract myself by reading a New Yorker story about COVID in New Mexico. It was written by a burned-out ER doctor who was frustrated by his patients. They came to see him when they were on the verge of death. He’d stopped asking why they hadn’t gotten the vaccine that would have saved their lives, because no answer they gave could change the outcome. Instead, he made them as comfortable as possible while they died preventable deaths.

We won’t make it to Redwood Canyon today. The snow and rain triggered mudslides across the General’s Highway, and the road is closed, so instead we shoot inside Grant Grove, a collection of several hundred sequoias that includes the General Grant Tree, at 260 feet the world’s second-largest tree by volume. (General Sherman, another nearby tree named during Reconstruction, is larger.) We’re the only people around. It’s silent in the grove, and I’m straining to hear what it sounds like when a snowflake falls. A buck walks by General Grant. Leroy Grafe, the cameraman, slinks away, hoping to get a shot of the deer grazing beneath the massive tree with blown snow stuck to the furrows of its bark. If there’s a more reverent time to be in a sequoia grove, I don’t know it.

Leroy is a contrarian who believes that most of the narratives we tell ourselves ignore inconvenient facts. When he returns, something about being in this place at this moment leads us to big ideas. In college, he took classes on early North American peoples and ecology, and we talk about how they moved across the land through time. Archaeological and ecological evidence suggests that the Clovis people, through the advent of large and novel rock points they used for hunting, probably contributed to the extinction of mammoths on the continent 12,500 years before European Americans scrubbed bison from the plains with their rifles and greed. E. O. Wilson wrote that it’s no coincidence that the most biodiverse time in world history was 60,000 years ago—the same era when humans emerged as a species. Mankind’s history is ugly and untidy. We’ve been dismantling ecosystems since we emerged from them. The difference now is that we’ve industrialized the process and left nature no quarter.

 

Ecological systems are like our bodies in that their function relies on a stable and narrow range of conditions. Think about how you feel when you’re running a temperature of 100 degrees, just two degrees above normal. That’s essentially what the earth is experiencing now, and it explains the recent uptick in natural disasters: floods, fires, heat waves, hurricanes. Even if mankind succeeds in pulling off a unified global effort to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, the best-case scenario—laid out in a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—has our world’s ecosystems riding out a sustained fever similar to a body temperature of 104. Extending this analogy to its worst-case scenario, the one that tracks our actual emissions most closely, feels too grim to contemplate.

The Dickman brothers—Kyle (left) and Garrett—with their kids on a recent trip near Yosemite’s high country
The Dickman brothers—Kyle (left) and Garrett—with their kids on a recent trip near Yosemite’s high country (Kyle Dickman)

Dawn breaks cold. There’s six inches of snow on the ground. A low cloud drifts over the tops of burned sequoias. The transportation department closed the road into the heart of Redwood Canyon, where the KNP Complex burned hottest. But the park lets us tag along with Joe to see a section of the grove that didn’t burn so hot. It looks far better than I’d hoped. Even from the pullout on the road I can see the tops of live sequoias rising 50 feet above burned pines. At last count, between 1,300 and 2,300 giants had died in Redwood Canyon, about 20 percent of the total casualties in the Castle Fire. Because of Joe’s backburn and his will to turn bad fire into good, plus recent prescribed fires in the grove, about the same number or more lived. Since 2015, some 65 percent of giant sequoias in California have seen flames. Garrett and Christy look at this as an opportunity. Every tree that burned and lived is unlikely to see high-intensity fire until the forests become flammable again in another 11 years. Wildfires accomplished in seven years what people never could have with prescribed fires. The question now becomes whether Garrett and Christy can hold on to the small edge nature has given them.

 

Fire investigators haven’t yet announced how the latest superfire to threaten the sequoias started. But it sparked on Thursday, July 7, after several weeks of weather over Yosemite that generated no lightning. It started along a trail hiked that day by thousands of tourists, one that winds up from the parking lot servicing the Mariposa Grove toward 500 of the biggest trees on the planet. Within hours of ignition, the Washburn Fire had spread to several hundred acres, and protecting sequoias was once again a national priority.

Even as the fire grew in leaps of hundreds and then thousands of acres, crowning in some places across the tops of sugar pines and incense cedars,  something was different this time. This is what the Park Service had been preparing for. The grove had been burned by 21 prescribed fires in the past 50 years. When the Washburn hit those areas and the places that had been thinned by Preston and Garrett, the flames sat down. They become small and manageable. Seeds slipped out of sequoia cones and drifted through the smoke in the millions. And chances are very good that, when the rains return, somewhere in the grove of trees that spawned the ideology behind the Park Service, a few dozen giants will get lucky once again.

In the wet spring, months before the Washburn sparked, the Park Service put on an optional training seminar in Yosemite’s East Auditorium, a vaulted, windowless concrete room in the Valley. The session was on climate-change grief. Skeptical, Garrett attended.

The emcee placed four items in a circle at the center of the room and asked the ten participants to pick the one that symbolized their feelings on climate change and share a bit about why. The stick represented anger. The rock represented fear. The bowl represented emptiness. And the oak leaf represented sorrow. When it was Garrett’s turn, he picked the leaf and, holding it, tried to tell the room that he was in charge of protecting Yosemite’s sequoias. That bureaucracy and logistics were the weapons he wielded to defend the big trees from climate change.

But his voice failed him. He’d recently found out that his work could be halted because an environmental group, the Earth Island Institute, was suing the park for what it insisted was illegal logging, as if the Park Service was now in the business of selling its assets. Chad Hanson, the executive director of the John Muir Project, a project of Earth Island Institute, contacted major publications—the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, Outside—and used inflammatory language to describe projects the reporters had never seen. He called firebreaks clear-cuts and the thinning of small trees outright logging. Garrett’s projects now faced delays, and Yosemite’s sequoia groves an uncertain future. He rolled the dead leaf against his palm.

“I don’t want to have to do this,” he managed to get out, by which he meant he didn’t want to mull over the emotional toll of his work. He wanted to be optimistic, to say he believed that, because of his and his colleagues’ contributions, his son, Theo, and my two kids would be able to show the big trees to generations to come. But he couldn’t shake the conviction that the past decade has been climate change’s opening salvo.

“Nobody should have to do this,” he muttered. But everybody will have to do this—to grieve for the world we’re losing. And Garrett wept, holding a leaf, in a room full of strangers.

Corrections: (09/27/2022) An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of an environmental activist. He is Chad Hanson, not Hansen. It also misidentified Hanson as the executive director or Earth Island Institute; he is the executive director of the John Muir Project, a project of Earth Island Institute. From September/October 2022 Lead Photo: Grayson Schaffer