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Intense wildfires have killed up to 1/5 of the earth's largest trees

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Intense wildfires have killed up to one-fifth of the Earth's largest trees in the past 14 months. Scientists are calling the recent loss of giant sequoias an emergency. KVPR's Alice Daniel reports from California's Kings Canyon National Park.

ALICE DANIEL, BYLINE: Many of the losses have been in remote locations where tourists don't go, says Christy Brigham. She's head of resource management and science for Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. One beautiful grove she hiked into recently had been decimated by last year's Castle Fire. All she could see were acres and acres of charred, blackened hulks, hundreds of feet tall.

CHRISTY BRIGHAM: As big as this one, as big as this really big tree. That tree is probably 2,000 years old.

DANIEL: She points to a healthy tree where she's standing now in the more well-traveled Grant Grove.

BRIGHAM: Has survived 80 to 100 previous fires, trees that big that are completely black and have no needles or branches.

DANIEL: Wildfires are becoming more common with the warming climate. Years of prescribed burns and forest thinning protected the more popular groves in California's parks and surrounding forest. Crews saved one grove this year by lighting a controlled burn right before a giant blaze reached it.

BRIGHAM: In some places, if you light the fire yourself with a drip torch or a drone, it generates the kind of fire that sequoias like.

DANIEL: Brigham has cried a lot of tears over the 3,600 giant sequoias that were wiped out just this year. She's thankful crews saved the grove they could.

BRIGHAM: In this case, I'm crying out of relief that they were able to protect it.

DANIEL: Overall, the sequoia losses are an emergency, according to the Save the Redwoods League. Joanna Nelson is director of science and conservation with the group. Standing in front of the stately giant sequoias towering above her, she says if the country had lost 20% of the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty, people would want immediate action.

JOANNA NELSON: We shouldn't expect anything less with our beloved giant sequoia.

DANIEL: Nelson says the best way to save trees is to thin the forest before fires destroy what's left of these groves.

For NPR News, I'm Alice Daniel in Kings Canyon National Park.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.