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Calif. Firefighters Ensure Sequoias Are Protected From Rough Fire's Flames

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here is what we know about a massive wildfire burning in California. It's been called the Rough Fire. It was ignited by lightning and is now burning out of control across 139,000 acres. What we don't know is whether firefighters will be able to keep up with it. Hot, dry weather in the West is fueling this fire in ways people in the West have never seen. So far, firefighters are doing their best. The Rough Fire is not threatening as many homes or businesses as two smaller fires burning in California, but it is threatening a resource that many see as a national treasure. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from Kings Canyon National Park.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: At 6,500 feet off the famous General's Highway, the ancient Grant Grove of giant sequoias is a must-see for any visitor to the Sierra Nevada. After all, one of the biggest and oldest trees in the world is here, the 268 foot high monolith, the General Grant. Well, this time of year, the canopied, shady groves around it should still be humming with hardy hikers straining their necks to take it all in. Instead, the chainsaws are roaring as firefighters get rid of flammable debris. Hundreds are working 16-hour shifts. A cluster of fire engines is pumping water from tanks into a hose that extends a mile around the perimeter of the grove.

EDWIN DIAZ: If you see this hand line right here, it's all connected with hoses and stuff. And what we're trying to do is locate, you know, areas of smoke and pockets of heat.

SIEGLER: Swinging his Pulaski over his shoulder, firefighter Edwin Diaz is looking for hotspots to mop up.

DIAZ: Making sure that they won't jump over the line and, you know, compromise what we're trying to protect here.

SIEGLER: The good news is that so far these beloved sequoias have been protected but not without an enormous amount of effort and expense. And what's happening right here, all these resources deployed, is the new norm for fighting fires in the hotter and drier West. Since the Rough Fire ignited from a lightning strike in July, fire crews have spent almost $90 million fighting it, and many here will tell you they've never seen a blaze this erratic or intense in the Sierra Nevada. Mike Theune of Kings Canyon National Park says it's been chewing through forests at an extraordinary pace.

MIKE THEUNE: You know, having four years of drought, being the hottest fire of the year, you also look at all the bark beetle killed in the area - it creates this perfect storm of conditions that really allows a fire this size to get so big.

SIEGLER: But things could be much worse. See, the Rough Fire kind of hit a wall when it arrived at the grove. It slowed way down. Well, that's thanks to the extensive prescribed burning that's occurred here lately. It's helped clear out all the unnatural understory.

THEUNE: So the goal is to keep fuels below and low so that when fire does come through it doesn't reach the crowns, which could lead to the trees' demise.

SIEGLER: These giant sequoias have to have low intensity wildfires to survive. Otherwise, their cones won't open up and regenerate. So the environmental and economic stakes are high, which is not lost on firefighters like Edwin Diaz.

DIAZ: It's a lot of the reason why a lot of visitors come here from all over the world. I have spoken to people from Germany, France and people from different places just to visit these, you know, great miracles of nature.

SIEGLER: For Diaz, this assignment is personal, too. His five-member engine crew's home base happens to be here in Grant Grove. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Kings Canyon National Park. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.