Flames from a massive wildfire burning in the Sierra Nevada will soon surround the famed stump of an ancient sequoia that was shown at the Chicago World’s Fair more than a century ago, the U.S. Forest Service said Friday.
The Chicago Stump, a remnant of the goliath General Noble Tree that was cut down so sections could be reassembled for the 1897 Chicago World’s Fair, is directly in the path of the Rough fire’s southern face.
“It’s imminent,” Jim Schwarber, a spokesman for the fire’s incident management team, said of the fire surrounding the area that contains stands of trees thousands of years old.
The fire, which has spread southwest by almost 20,000 acres over the last two days to a total size of 119,069 acres in the Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, was started by lightning July 31 and has seen a resurgence this week as extended heat and wind have fueled its growth, Schwarber said.
To try to protect the Chicago Stump, crews have cleared nearby brush and ringed the area in fire retardant, set up a sprinkler system to keep flames from directly hitting it and wrapped the stump in a reflective foil that wards off radiant heat.
Firefighters have cleared brush up to 500 feet from sequoia groves that could be in the fire’s path, the U.S. Forest Service said. But the trees offer their own natural defenses, Schwarber said.
Sequoias are taller, thicker and produce their own climate that is less amicable for extremely hot, damaging flames, he said. The trees do not allow for a lot of underbrush to grow, minimizing the fire’s intensity around them.
“There’s areas of moonscape from this fire, but the sequoias are not piles of ashes,” Schwarber said. “Some of these groves are thousands of years old. Most of them have shown multiple burn scars on them from previous fires that they’ve survived. We’re hopeful that this fire will just be another one.”
Since the blaze started, steep terrain has kept firefighters from attacking flames directly in many places, and smoke that has settled over the valleys and ridges has kept water and fire retardant drops to a minimum.
The damage is spread across more than 186 square miles, and the fire was making a push Friday southwest toward Dunlap and other communities. Firefighters have stopped its spread north of the Kings River.
The obstacles firefighters have faced with this stubborn blaze are plenty and varied, Schwarber said.
“We’ve had bug-killed trees, insect-killed trees in the same area. Not only are the trees that are alive dry, the dead ones are fuels that further allow extreme fire behavior,” he said. “It’s becoming the new normal but the new normal is not normal.”
The toll caused by California’s four-year drought is evident as the fire burns through grass and trees that contain only 3% moisture.
“You almost can’t get something that dry in your oven,” Schwarber said.
The fire triggered more mandatory evacuations Friday morning. Among those forced to flee this week were the staff and inhabitants of an exotic cat sanctuary.
Several cheetahs, panthers, tigers and lions were evacuated from Cat Haven, a big-cat sanctuary in Dunlap, as smoke and flames from the blaze moved into their habitat.
Even smaller animals, such as Carlos and Luz Ochoa’s five chihuahas, could be heading out soon if things take a turn for the worse.
“We’re all cooped up in a room waiting and watching TV,” said Carlos Ochoa, 54, who with his wife owns Sequoia Kings Canyon RV Park at the edge of the evacuation zone.
He has filled up four 5-gallon drums of gasoline in case crews block off the lone gas station in town and has loaded up boxes with coffee, sugar and canned food.
“I’m going to be here, but hey, better be prepared for ‘what if’ and this is that ‘what if’ right now,” Ochoa said.
He said authorities calmed locals’ nerves when they briefed residents on the fire’s progress this week and advised them on how to prepare. The pair’s trailer park is full of families and senior citizens who aren’t prone to dropping everything and running at the first sign of trouble, the Ochoas said.
Only one family has left -- and that’s because one of their children had asthma, Luz Ochoa said. Her husband said he’s been keeping tabs on their neighbors and offered to haul residents in the trailer attached to his pickup if they’re ordered to go.
“I’ve been trying to keep morale up. I was always told to keep my head on straight, don’t panic. That’s what I’m doing now,” Carlos Ochoa said. “I told them that if something goes down, I’m going to drive around, honk my horn with my lights on -- that’s the warning. I would be the last to leave.”
Down the road at Clingan’s Junction Grocery store, the owners have kept the store open an hour later than normal for firefighters. Employees there were busy preparing in case they were told to leave Friday.
“It’s been hectic here, I don’t really have time to talk,” said employee Amy Soltero. “We’ve been running around putting away stuff.”
Crews plan on making a stand against the fire on McKenzie Ridge east of Highway 180, Schwarber said. But every afternoon when the sun warms the area, winds push the flames up hills.
“Our level of confidence in holding the fire is ... moderate,” Schwarber said after a long pause. “We won’t be surprised if it continues to move across the contingency line. This fire has been extremely resistant to control.”