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Faye Flam

Giant Sequoias Are Built to Withstand Fire, But Not These Fires

Infernos rampaging through the American West are so hot, they’re killing trees that have thrived on fire for thousands of years.

A firefighter looks up the base of a giant sequoia. 

A firefighter looks up the base of a giant sequoia. 

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

No sooner had one fire in Yosemite been contained than a new one erupted in a different part of the park. This summer’s Western wildfires have brought attention to the risks that climate change brings to America’s national parks and the treasures they contain — like the giant sequoia trees, the largest trees on Earth. In the last two years, fires have consumed nearly 20% of them, according to the Forest Service.

The people who know these forests told me the best place to go to understand the fate of these trees is Kings Canyon, a national park a three-hour drive south of Yosemite. What has happened there is unprecedented in natural history. In Kings Canyon, hundreds of giant sequoias have burned to death — even though these trees were built to burn and survive, and rely on fire to reproduce.