Chad Hanson to a white paging telephone please...

Chad Hanson to a white paging telephone please...

Huzzahs to the public relations genius who figured out that the most visually memorable way to showcase the herculean efforts of California firefighters was to wrap the base of the General Sherman sequoia in aluminum foil to protect it from the fast approaching 25,142-acre KNP wildfire.

Photo ops like this don’t normally pass muster with the news media’s social mavens, but there it was plastered all over the Internet on Saturday morning, September 18: firefighters frantically wrapping the General in a flame-resistant blanket while others swept needles away from the 102-foot base of the 2,200 to 2,700-year-old monarch that dominates the Sequoia National Park.

The climatechange crowd is already in full throat so it’s worth noting that the General is possibly 700 years older than data sets assembled by the Tree Ring Research laboratory at the University of Arizona. Its models the climate in reverse for 2,000 years tracing warming and cooling trends that resemble undulating sine waves with ups and downs every 175 to 350 years.

Clearly, this climate change business has been with us for eons – long before fossil fuels, global cooling and global warming were invented. Many scientists believe the climate is again entering a cooling period.

The General is much loved for many reasons, not least its jaw-dropping size and beauty. By volume, it is the largest tree on earth: 275 feet tall – just 25 feet short of three football fields in length and still growing at an annual rate equal to a tree 60 feet tall and three feet in diameter.

Several redwoods are taller than the General, and Methuselah, the oldest known bristlecone pine, in southern California’s Inyo National Forest, is at least twice its age, but the General has a better public relations department, which explains both Saturday’s photo op and public concern for the KNP’s rapid approach.

tree on fire

As of this September 19 writing, the lightning-caused fire - which started September 10, is still burning out of control. Containment is not expected until October 10, which seems like an eternity to me given its small size in relation to the 963,000-acre Dixie Fire or the 219,000-acre Caldor Fire.

I suspect all three fires will be the focal points of congressional hearings later this year. There are many unknowns that point directly at huge gaps and some wrongheaded thinking as it concerns our nation’s forest fire policies.

Recently, SFGATE, the San Francisco Chronicle digital port, reported KNP had “exploded.” I don’t know what this means but I’ll guess it is burning through the tops of some very tall trees. There is solid reason for concern.

The cynic in me wants to know where Chad Hanson is hiding. Hanson is the co-founder and director of the John Muir Project, based in Marin County north of San Francisco.

Hanson holds a PhD in ecology and has been a frequent and vocal critic of logging for many years. He is a media darling because of his vocal advocacy for allowing wildfires to burn rather than quickly extinguish them.

Fire has long played a useful role in western forests, but it is ridiculous to allow them to burn out of control for weeks on end in diseased forests that have grown so dense that they can’t naturally rebalance themselves short of total destruction.

Mechanical thinning and prescribed fire are much safer and far more reliable alternatives for creating park-like stands that hold lots of reserve trees as natural seed sources, but you won’t hear Hanson advocating for these tools because he’s wrapped himself in shrouds of naturalness and that’s all there is to it.

Still, I’m pretty sure Hanson won’t be hustling down to the Chronicle to make any grandiose statements about allowing the KNP fire to run its course in the Sequoia National Park grove where the General holds court. But he’s had plenty to say about earlier burns in national forests that weren’t favorites with his donors.

As for me, I wish the entire western national forest system – all 193 million acres of it – could be wrapped in fire resistant foil. We are losing far more than trees and the wildlife habitat they provide. We are losing watersheds – including San Francisco’s – and we are losing generations of outdoor recreation opportunity.

Hanson is entitled to his opinions. So am I and so are the millions of live in the rural West and are eyewitnesses to what has happened in our national forests -since what Hanson calls “commercial logging” stopped with the government’s June 1990 decision to list the northern spotted owl as a threatened species.

Thirty-one years have passed, and spotted owl population numbers are in freefall. Not one federal owl biologist has been willing to publicly discuss the relationship between the precipitous decline in their number and the wildfire-related loss of several million acres that the federal government set aside in no-harvest reserves to protect owls.

I think this is because they know that the science behind the listing decision was flimsy at best. The goal was to “save” old growth forests from chainsaws. Fine. But most of the owl habitat in southwest Oregon and northern California has been lost in subsequent wildfires that Hanson sees as therapeutic. I don’t.

I wish the General well. His death would be a tragedy. But three things are worth noting in these frantic days.

First, until President Clinton signed an executive order adding National Monument status to the Sequoia National Park, the Forest Service, and the National Park Service routinely thinned smaller trees beneath the General and other nearby sequoias to prevent flames from crawling into their crowns.

Second, the General’s bark at its base is about three feet thick. That’s great insulation against ground fires. The photo op foil wrapping looks picture perfect on the Internet but can’t prevent a the exploding KNP fire from jumping from one tree crown to the next until it reaches the General.

Third, fire resistant foil has been used many times to protect historic structures and homes from wildfire, but there is no foil in the General’s still exposed crown. Thinning is the only tool that can protect this magnificent tree from fiery death.

Chad Hanson to a white paging telephone, please...

General Sherman Tree - National Park Service / Handout

Photo credits: General Sherman tree images: National Park Service/ Handout
No copyright infringement is intended.

See more at:
KNP Complex Fire: General Sherman, 4 famous giant sequoias safe

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