February 9, 2005

World’s Second Biggest Tree Could Be Dying

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) -- A giant sequoia considered to be the second biggest tree on earth is fighting for its life after being hit by a succession of fires and storms.

The huge Washington Tree in northern California's Sequoia National Park, which was 115 meters (254 feet) high and measures 45.9 meters (101 feet) in circumference, could be dying after a lifespan of 2,500 to 3,200 years.

The San Francisco Chronicle quoted park ranger Alexandra Picavet as saying that fires in 2003 and snow and rain this winter had whittled the giant arbor down to a height of just 52.2 meters (115 feet).

"There's still a little foliage on it," she said. "Our scientists can't really make a full evaluation of its condition, because it's about a mile from the nearest road, and there's so much snow on the ground.

"We'll have a better sense of how it's doing when the snow melts," she said, adding that the living landmark's problems had been worsened by the fact that it has been hollow for at least 190 years.

"Before active fire suppression (in the 20th century), wildfire cycled through the sequoia groves about every 15 to 50 years," said Picavet.

"Sometimes the fires burned into some of the trees, hollowing them out over time. It isn't a terribly common occurrence, but it can't be considered totally unusual."

The tree's hollow interior and sheared-off top made it more vulnerable to damage from heavy snowfall.

But the ranger insisted that while the possible death of the venerable old tree was a seen by many as a tragedy, it was part of life.

"It's a completely natural process," she said. "The most common cause of death for giant sequoias is simply falling over."

The Sequoia National Park, north of San Francisco, is one of California's top tourist attractions, drawing visitors from across the world to see the oversized trees.


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