California fire scorching precious Joshua trees

By Jorge Garcia

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE, California (Reuters) -The largest wildfire in California so far this year has burned precious Joshua trees, a prominent cultural symbol once vital for indigenous people to weave into baskets and sandals and still an important part of the Mojave Desert ecosystem.

The York Fire has burned around 94,000 acres (38,000 hectares) near the California-Nevada border and was 34% contained as of Thursday, Calfire said.

The fire has damaged a diverse ecosystem and killed an unknown number of Joshua trees, which also gained international fame from the U2 album “The Joshua Tree” released in 1987.

The fire has scorched the Mojave National Preserve but has not entered the better-known Joshua Tree National Park, which is about 60 miles (100 km) away and receives about 3 million visitors a year. The Mojave National Preserve receives less than a third that many visitors.

“There is obviously tremendous damage to the landscape. … It’s sort of a torched moonscape appearance,” said Mike Gauthier, superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve. “Some of them (Joshua trees) will completely be ravaged. Joshua Tree isn’t the most durable species, so it’ll die.”

The National Park Service said the York fire was the largest in the area since records began.

The trees are protected by the state of California and have captured public imagination, in part because of their sharply pointed leaves and hairy bark. Many observers have remarked on their resemblance to the fictional Truffula trees in the 1971 Dr. Seuss book “The Lorax.”

Known scientifically as Yucca brevifolia, they are a member of the Agave family, according to the National Park Service.

“A lot of people connect with them when they see them. They have a very special habitat, so I think it’s special when folks get to interact with them,” said Sasha Travaglio, a spokesperson for Joshua Tree National Park.

(Reporting by Jorge Garcia and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Sandra Maler)