Nighty Night, Sleep Tight: Firefighters Are Giving Sequoia Trees Aluminum “Blankets” to Protect Them From Wildfires

Rosa Newshore, Contributing Writer

The effects of climate change on our environment has become a familiar sight for all of us worldwide: droughts, hurricanes, wildfires, and more. In recent years, these changes have become drastic and destructive, and therefore more threatening to humans, animals, and the environment. To protect ourselves and our world, we have to work harder and become more creative. In the face of the wildfires that are becoming more frequent in the U.S., especially in the West, firefighters have started to employ the use of aluminum “blankets” to protect our forest giants — sequoias. 

According to the New York Times and other news outlets in California, thousands of acres of land had been scorched by mid-September, coming to the doorstep of the Giant Sequoia National Monument in the Sequoia National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park. The parks are home to the majestic sequoia trees, the largest and most resilient trees in the world that can live up to 3,400 years. To protect some of these giants, including the largest tree in the world called General Sherman (measuring 36 feet in diameter at the base), firefighters have covered their roots and lower trunks with aluminum-based wrappings. According to NPR, these aluminum “blankets” prevent embers from getting into the trees through old fire scars which leave marks on sequoias where fires have breached the up to eighteen-inch-thick bark and burned the living tissue (National Park Service). 

According to NPR, these blankets have been used to protect houses from fires in the past, and they are not the only measures firefighters are using to protect the sequoias. Firefighters have also been gathering organic matter, known as duff, on the forest floor and discarding it away from the trees so it does not catch fire and burn them. They have also been digging fire lines (a method used to ignite fire from mineral soil), dropping flame retardant powder from planes, and subsequently spraying water from sprinklers. These measures have already achieved some success as the trees known as the Four Guardsmen, which stand at the edge of the forest, were saved over the weekend of September 19.

Although fire harms sequoia trees, it also plays a pivotal role in their ecosystem (National Parks Service). Wildfires are not foreign to the West, so, over the centuries, sequoia trees have adapted to them. Sequoia trees retain their seeds for about twenty years until the hot air from a fire dries out the cones, allowing them to crack open and the seeds to drop to the forest floor. Fire also burns away undergrowth and other trees, leaving bare soil that allows the seeds to germinate and have a better chance of survival. It might seem then that the firefighters are the ones harming sequoias by putting out the fires that help them grow; however, they are protecting the trees from burning down altogether. 

According to National Geographic, wildfires have become more prevalent in recent years, with them becoming bigger and more intense. As a result of climate change, global temperatures are rising, leading to high temperatures that cause droughts and changing patterns in rain and snow, which all increase the risk of wildfires. In addition to other factors like forest management and human-started fires, fires are becoming more and more frequent. With the western part of the U.S. having its hottest summer on record, it is no wonder there have been so many fires, even leading California’s Fire Protection Service to state that “fire season” takes place over the entire year. Sequoia trees are not the only thing of importance at cost here. According to the New York Times, two-thirds of all acres of groves of sequoias in the Sierra Nevada burned between 2015 and 2020. In the Castle fire last year, 7,000 to 11,000 sequoias burned, or 10 to 14 percent of the world’s population of these trees. These majestic giants are threatened by the very thing that is also supposed to help them survive. 

While fires make it possible for sequoia seeds to grow, spurred by climate change, they have also destroyed vast numbers of their parents. The firefighters’ work with aluminum “blankets” and other protective measures is crucial to protect these natural wonders; however, there is only so much they can do as more and more fires burn. Perhaps a better remedy would be to attack the problem at the root—climate change—and work together to resolve this issue so we can save so many species like our sequoia trees before they are lost. But one might wonder, will it be too late?