Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove reopens under Washburn fire winds

One of the most popular and breathtaking sites in Yosemite National Park, the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees, reopened to the public on Wednesday morning, nearly four weeks after a major wildfire.

The Washburn Fire was 97% contained, fire officials reported Wednesday, burning 4,886 acres. More than 1,600 firefighters were at their peak in the fire that began on July 7. But on Wednesday only 65 were left to deposit.

“It looks good. We’re super excited. There were probably 200 people waiting at the shuttle bus stop this morning,” said Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman. “The fire got pretty close, but the Sequoias look great. We are very grateful.”

When the Washburn Fire was first discovered, it raised fears of environmental devastation. In Sequoia National Park and Sequoia National Forest, massive electric sparks have caused fires over the past two years, killing between 10,000 and 14,000 mammoth sequoias – about 20% of all wild giant sequoias remaining on Earth.

Giant redwoods at Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park on Aug.  January 1, 2022.  (Source: National Park Service)
Giant redwoods at Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park on Aug. January 1, 2022. (Source: National Park Service)

But the news from the Washburn Fire has been nearly all good: After a massive onslaught by firefighters at the start of the fire, Mariposa Grove contains not one of about 500 giant sequoias, some of which tower more than 200 feet tall and exceed 2,000. years old, died in the fire. No houses were burnt in the nearby Wawona community. There was no injury or death.

Air quality was good in Yosemite on Wednesday, Gediman said, and all entrances to the park were open.

In fact, any facility in Mariposa Grove, including interpretive panels, restrooms, trails, wooden boardwalks, water systems, and other features, was replaced four years ago as part of a $40 million renovation effort There was no damage caused by the fire.

“I think there’s a 25 mph sign on the road in the grove that’s partially burned out,” said Yosemite Forest ecologist and Sequoia expert Garrett Dickman. “It’s really amazing.”

The sequoia of Mariposa Grove – first set aside for protection by Abraham Lincoln in 1864 – is one of the largest living things on Earth, growing up to 285 feet long, with bark more than a foot thick. Individual trees standing in the grove stood there today when Julius Caesar ruled the Roman Empire, and Alexander the Great led armies through western Asia.

Dickman and other fire experts say three things led to successful fire results. There were no other major fires in California when the fire broke out, so a large number of firefighters, engines, helicopters and other equipment were available. Second, the weather was not at its peak. The temperature was warm but not strong, and the winds were mostly moderate.

And most important, he said, Yosemite employees have conducted 21 controlled burns in and around Mariposa Grove since 1971. Those natural conditions were recreated centuries ago when lightning strikes and burnings by native tribes made fire a common part of the environment in the Sierra. , Controlled burning and some moderate thinning of small pine trees removed dead wood and brush from the forest floor, otherwise washburn fires could cause larger trees to burn hotter and more fatally.

“Some of it was luck, and some of it was preparation,” Dickman said.

When the flames hit the grove, they slowed down and stayed close to the ground, he noted.

Crews installed a sprinkler system to protect the Grizzly Giant, which stands at 209 feet tall and is believed to be the grove’s oldest tree at about 2,700 years old. They also installed sprinklers near a historic cabin where the park’s first ranger, Galen Clark, lived more than 150 years ago.

Dickman said visitors to the grove will now see burn marks on several large trees, and burned Chinese pine and pine forests around Wawona Road.

Fire crews work for weeks to clear fire lines and remove brush from the base of giant sequoia trees at Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park during the Washburn Fire.  None of the giant sequences shown here died in the fire in the first few days after the fire on July 7, 2022.  (Photo: Sarah Platt, National Park Service)
Fire crews work for weeks to clear fire lines and remove brush from the base of giant sequoia trees at Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park during the Washburn Fire. None of the giant sequences shown here died in the fire in the first few days after the fire on July 7, 2022. (Photo: Sarah Platt, National Park Service)

In recent weeks, the US Forest Service announced emergency plans to cut red tape and accelerate controlled burning in the vast sequoia groves in the Sierra Nevada.

Shuttle buses were operating in the Grove on Wednesday morning. The southern entrance to the park on Highway 41 was open, and the historic Wawona Hotel and the nearby Wawona Campground were also open.

Several trails along the edges of Mariposa Grove are temporarily closed, including the Washburn Trail (between the welcome plaza and arrivals area); the western side of the Perimeter Trail (from Gallen Clark Tree near the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail); and the way from Mariposa Grove to Wawona.

Meanwhile, the crew also continued to make progress on another fire near Oak Fire, which covered 81% of the 19,244 acres. That fire began on July 22 and burned south of Highway 140 between Mariposa and El Portal. The Oak Fire burned 127 structures, mostly in the midpine region. But on Wednesday, all evacuation orders were lifted and Highway 140 from Mariposa to Yosemite’s western entrance was open.

Because of the fire, Yosemite Superintendent Cecily Muldoon set up counseling sessions for park employees this week at the Mariposa County Fairgrounds and Wawona Community Center.

Muldoon wrote in a note to staff, “It has been a very difficult month with the devastation wrought by the Oak fire on our colleagues and our community, as well as the devastation on the people evacuated along with the trauma of the Washburn fire. ” A few days of terrible air quality for all of us. We are looking for ways to help those who have suffered.”

Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park, shown here shortly after the Washburn Fire began on July 7, 2022, suffered only minor damage.  No facilities burned down and no huge sequence died.  (Source: National Park Service)
Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park, shown here shortly after the Washburn Fire began on July 7, 2022, suffered only minor damage. No facilities burned down and no huge sequence died. (Source: National Park Service)
Riley Nelson and Sarah Platt from Yosemite's Wildlife Fire Module Crew 1 during the initial attack after the Washburn fire on July 7, 2022.  Grove.  (Photo: Sarah Platt, National Park Service)
Riley Nelson and Sarah Platt from Yosemite’s Wildlife Fire Module Crew 1 during the initial attack after the Washburn fire on July 7, 2022. Grove. (Photo: Sarah Platt, National Park Service)

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