An innovative solution to a tricky fire in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park

Suspended sprinkler system saves six old-growth redwoods

jedediah smith canopy fire
It is believed that dry lightning strikes started the fire in several coast redwoods. Photo by California State Parks.

Firefighters have been perfecting their strategies for putting out forest fires for centuries. But that isn’t to say that new challenges don’t pop up every now and then. 

One such challenge arose in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in late August when a fire broke out in several tall old-growth coast redwoods along the popular Howland Road. What was unique about this fire was where it broke out: Not at the top of the trees. Not at the bottom. But instead, in between, more than 100 feet up. 

“This kind of fire doesn’t happen very often,” said Erin Gates, lead interpreter for Redwood National and State Parks. “When a fire breaks out up in the canopy at the top of the trees, we use a helicopter. Helicopter drops aren’t always effective, especially when the trees vary in height. The overstory can prevent water from reaching the trees that need it. If the fire is on the ground, we use a hose.” 

According to Gates, firefighters used a technique developed in North Coast Redwoods District specifically to fight fire in old growth redwoods. This technique allows firefighters to put water directly on fires that aren’t in the canopy, but are still way too high for hoses. Using a line gun, they launch a line of rope over a nearby branch, and winch up a sprinkler system, which is then directed at the fire. 

canopy fire jed smith
California State Parks staff in safety gear work on the hoses they used to put out the fire. Photo by California State Parks.

“Without this technique, old growth redwood trees would have to be dropped in order to put the fire out,” she said. “At the critical part of the fire along Howland Hill Road, there were six giant trees on fire. This technique has saved six old growth redwood trees on this fire alone. It does take additional resources and time to fight these fires but with only 5 percent of old growth left in the world it is certainly worth the investment.” 

Smoke initially tipped park staff to the fire’s presence on Aug. 16, but they believe the fire was ignited by dry lightning several days earlier and took a while to build up. The fire temporarily closed Howland Road. 

Foresters from California State Parks recently used the same technique to put out fires still smoldering in Big Basin Redwoods State Park from last year’s CZU Complex fire that burned through more than 90 percent of the park and destroyed much of the historic park infrastructure. 

“The kind of fire we saw at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park doesn’t happen all that often,” Gates explained. “Because of the coastal fog, these trees are usually pretty damp, and that combined with their inherent fire resistance usually keeps fires from getting started.  

What happens if there isn’t a branch to hang the sprinkler over? According to Gates, the team is ready for that eventuality. 

“We’ve got specially skilled foresters who know how to climb the nearby trees and run the sprinkler manually,” she said. “They’ll stay up there as long as they have to.” 

About the author

Garrison Frost joined Save the Redwoods League in 2019 as its Director of Communications.

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3 Responses to “An innovative solution to a tricky fire in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park”

  1. Rob M Thompson

    A Giant THANK YOU to these brave and innovative firefighters!

    Reply
  2. Mario D Vaden

    What would really be innovative in Redwood National and State Parks is letting fires burn naturally. Although, that might be a tough pill to swallow theses days. For research, we’ve explored the midst of all the north redwood parks, and there’s a lot of debris building up in some areas vs. – say – that fires used to naturally burn.

    If a fire gets out of control someday in Jedediah Smith park, could it become much worse due to continual increase of fallen branches and wood.

    Maybe I missed it, but did anybody say whether the recent fire was naturally caused or arson? It’s so close the the road.

    Reply
  3. Jamison OToole

    Amazing. Thank you so much for this important work. Deep bow of gratitude….

    Reply

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