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    Yosemite fire grows as crews protect iconic sequoias

    YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA (AP) – A wildfire threatening the largest grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park more than doubled in size in a day, and firefighters were working in difficult terrain on Sunday to protect the iconic trees and a small mountain town as the United States (US) weathers another very active year for fires.

    Campers and residents near the blaze were evacuated but the rest of the sprawling park in California remained open, though heavy smoke obscured scenic vistas and created unhealthy air quality.

    “Today it’s actually the smokiest that we’ve seen,” Yosemite fire information spokesperson Nancy Phillipe said on Sunday. “Up until this morning, the park has not been in that unhealthy category, but that is where we are now.”

    Over 500 mature sequoias were threatened in the famed Mariposa Grove but there were no reports of severe damage to any named trees, including the 3,000-year-old Grizzly Giant.

    A sprinkler system set up within the grove kept the tree trunks moist and officials were hopeful that the steady spray of water along with previous prescribed burns would be enough to keep flames at bay, Phillipe said.

    Firefighters protect a sequoia tree as the Washburn Fire burns in Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park. PHOTO: AP

    The cause of the Washburn Fire was under investigation. It had grown to nearly 6.7 square kilometres by Sunday morning, with no containment.

    Beyond the trees, the community of Wawona, which is surrounded by parkland, was under threat, with people ordered to leave late Friday. In addition to residents, about 600 to 700 people who were staying at the Wawona campground in tents, cabins and a historic hotel were ordered to leave.

    Temperatures were expected to rise and reach the lower 90s in the coming days, but fire crews working in steep terrain were not contending with intense winds, said senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Hanford Jeffrey Barlow.

    The giant sequoias, native in only about 70 groves spread along the western slope of California’s Sierra Nevada range, were once considered impervious to flames but have become increasingly vulnerable as wildfires fuelled by a build-up of undergrowth from a century of fire suppression and drought exacerbated by climate change have become more intense and destructive.

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