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Prescribed Burns Help Rebirth Sequoias After 2015 Wildfire

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, let's get a different perspective on the destruction of forest. It's a second look at a wildfire that struck in California in 2015. The fire threatened groves of giant sequoia trees. Now that a little time has passed, we can see evidence that the fire was good for the species. Here's Valley Public Radio's Ezra David Romero.

EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: The rough fire east of Fresno decimated more than 150,000 thousand acres of forest last year. The fire wiped out pine trees and some sequoias did burn. But the blaze actually helped the species overall. Tony Caprio is a fire ecologist with Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.

TONY CAPRIO: When you get a pulse of heat up into the crown, it dries those cones and then they'll open up and release the seeds.

ROMERO: Following the fire, the ground was littered with millions and millions of seeds.

CAPRIO: There's a lot of the sequoia groves that burned in the Rough Fire that had never seen fire. So those trees have been accumulating cones.

ROMERO: Caprio, a few other scientists and I are hiking into one of the most famous groves of giant sequoias called this Grant Grove. The more than 2,000-year-old 107-foot-tall General Grant tree and others withstood the Rough Fire because the Park Service used prescribed burns to decrease a chance of high intensity blazes. The other reason - the trees' fibrous bark.

CAPRIO: It has a lot of air pockets in it. If you come over here and knock on it, it actually sounds - sounds hollow so that the heat from the fire doesn't penetrate the tree.

ROMERO: As you hike down the trail, it's really clear where the fire stopped. National Park Service Fire Information Officer Mike Theune points to an area west of the trail where everything is charred.

MIKE THEUNE: You can really see how hot it got in there. Up in the canopies, even in the giant sequoias, that's the heat of the fire. Up to your left, you'll see green. This is an area where the fire literally hit one of our prescribed fire treatments.

ROMERO: When the fire approached the prescribed burn area, the blaze slowed down, preventing damage to the core of Grant Grove. Now around the edges where the fire burned and cones burst releasing thousands of seeds, Theune points to tiny sprouts pushing through the ashy forest floor.

THEUNE: They're really tiny, almost smaller than your pinky finger.

ROMERO: Do you see one down here?

THEUNE: Oh, yeah. I can point them out. They're little, tiny, green - that's a baby sequoia there.

ROMERO: Theune also says so many seeds have germinated that clusters of seedlings are growing up together, which usually doesn't happen.

THEUNE: You can imagine if none of these trees ever got thinned out how dense of a forest it would be.

ROMERO: By next year, these sprouting seeds will be joined by ferns and other plants. Once again, fire ecologist Tony Caprio.

CAPRIO: It'll look like there's a green lawn out there with all the little sequoia seedlings. And the thing we have to think about in the future is - how do we manage fire in that area? - because we want some of those to survive.

ROMERO: Caprio says crews will continue to use prescribed burns in this area to thin the growing sequoias so in 1,000 years, some of these little seedlings could be some of the largest trees in the world. For NPR News, I'm Ezra David Romero in Sequoia National Park. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.