Lightning ignited two old-growth redwoods in Jedediah Smith State Park on Sunday, and with limited resources available and fire danger high statewide, one of the ancient trees may be felled to prevent flames from spreading.
On Monday morning, the fire consisted of one green living tree and one dead snag, both roughly 10 feet in diameter, that were burning from the base to more than 100 feet up the trees.
“Due to fuel conditions and limited resources, we don’t have the option of monitoring this for too long,” said Tim DeVos, Calfire battalion chief for Humboldt-Del Norte Unit, at the Crescent City office. “As a last resort we might have to fall these trees.”
By late Monday afternoon, DeVos was more optimistic about the redwoods’ outlook after the day’s fire suppression tactics put out the fire in the snag, leaving only the smoldering green tree.
“We’ve knocked down all of the active fire and now we’re dealing with the smoldering pockets that are elevated in these old-growth trees,” DeVos said. A less than one-tenth-acre ground fire was contained as soon as crews arrived Sunday evening.
Throughout Monday, a Cal Fire type 1 “Chinook” helicopter made laps between the fire site — roughly 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile southeast of Elk Valley Road and Highway 199 — and Lake Earl, delivering 3,000-gallon-bucketloads of water to the redwoods with considerable accuracy.
“It’s really pretty impressive to stand here and watch them do this,” said State Parks forester Lathrop Leonard as he witnessing the helicopter tactfully dump water on the remaining burning redwood Monday afternoon.
“Calfire has been doing a great job to minimize impact to resources by dropping water on the trees instead of cutting them down,” Leonard said. The fire will be continually reassessed to determine if felling the tree becomes necessary.
“If it continues to burn, there’s a danger of a bigger impact on resources, so we’re hoping to contain it and limit our impact to this one tree.”
The larger Chinook chopper was deployed once available around noon, relieving Cal Fire Humboldt - Del Norte’s UH-1H “Super Huey,” which has only a 324-gallon capacity.
“Because we’re dealing with the old-growth trees, we needed a much bigger bucket to penetrate the canopy,” DeVos said.
After another full day of helicopter dumps and handcrew-firefighting techniques, DeVos expected to make a decision about the tree’s future this afternoon.
If the tree is taken down, DeVos said it would be a great amount of work to create a fire line around the fallen tree and the embers that would spread from the fall.
In 2010, a group of coast redwoods that caught fire by lightning near Simpson-Reed Grove on Highway 199 smoldered for more than a month before the trees were taken down. But with current fire danger high and the majority of the local Calfire unit already committed to fires in other parts of the state, this situation is different.
When the fire was reported around 4:30 p.m. Sunday, the Cal Fire Humboldt - Del Norte Unit only had three of its 15 handcrews available, with all of the other crews assigned to the 6,000-plus acre Panther Fire in Tehama County.
Two of those remaining handcrews, 15 firefighters each, were sent to hike into Jed Smith Park to work on containment around 7 p.m. Sunday. Two Calfire engine crews, with three firefighters each, were also deployed, but most of the unit’s engine crews were also fighting the Panther Fire on Monday.
“That’s why we just have to put this fire out and move to the next one,” DeVos said.
Redwoods’ long lifespan can make them harder fires to extinguish.
“This tree, like many other trees in the forest, has a lot of damage from previous fires and other trees falling into them, so the fire can get into the heartwood that’s partially rotten and more susceptible to fire,” parks forester Leonard said. Once the heartwood is burning past the bark, it is very difficult to put out the fire with water. Dead branches and needles caught in the crotches of redwoods can also create fires that penetrate the bark where flames are hard to reach.
“Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem but it’s hard to allow fires to burn in these areas safely without threatening homes and people in general,” Leonard said.