Jul 12, 2022 - Podcasts

The race to save Yosemite's giant sequoia trees

A wildfire in Yosemite National Park has expanded almost 10 times to 2,000 acres since it started on Friday. The rapidly growing Washburn Fire in California is threatening some of the world’s oldest sequoia trees … and around 1,600 people have been evacuated from the area.

  • Plus: the Biden administration tries to protect abortion providers.
  • And: some Venezuelan migrants are granted extra time in the U.S.

Guests: Dr. Maureen Kennedy, associate professor of wildfire ecology at the University of Washington Tacoma and Axios' Oriana Gonzalez.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Alex Sugiura, and Ben O'Brien. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Tuesday July 12th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Today: racing to save Yosemite’s giant sequoia trees from wildfire. Plus, some Venezuelan migrants are granted extra time in the U.S.

But first, the Biden administration tries to protect abortion providers. That’s our One Big Thing.

Updated guidance from the Department of Health and Human Services says health providers who perform abortions in emergency situations are protected under federal law, even if they practice in state with an abortion ban in place. Axios’ Oriana Gonzalez is here to explain. Hi Oriana.


NIALA: First, this isn't an executive order, but this also isn't a new law. What does this guidance actually mean?

ORIANA: What the Department of Health and Human Services is doing is clarifying what is available under federal law now that Roe has been overturned. So they're referring to a law known as the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act. Uh, it was enacted in 1986 and what it does is just say that people have the right to access emergency care. What the HHS is saying in this case is that abortion should be considered an emergency treatment when necessary. So in cases of a medical emergency, if a patient has a life threatening condition, abortion providers will always be protected when they provide an abortion in those cases. And when we're looking at state laws, you know, we have around 13 states that have banned or heavily restricted abortion since Roe was overturned.

A few of these state laws have exceptions for medical emergencies, but the issue with this is that abortion providers are saying that these laws are a little bit confusing and that in the moment of an emergency, they don't have enough time to determine whether it's an emergency that qualifies under state law. They don't have enough time to contact a lawyer and see if they can actually perform an abortion under these conditions. So what HHS is doing is telling these providers, they don't have to doubt anymore whether they can or cannot provide an abortion. If they think an abortion is necessary to save a patient's life, to protect their health, just in any sort of emergency situation, they can perform that abortion and be protected under federal law.

NIALA: Now again, this is federal law. This is the Biden administration and the Department of Health and Human Services. What do we anticipate the response will be from states that prohibit abortion?

ORIANA: It truly depends. The reason why abortion providers are afraid is because a prosecutor can come in and say, “you violated this law.” So potentially what we could see is having more legal challenges coming in from a prosecutor in a red state saying, “no, this abortion should not have been provided,” but then you can have the provider argue, actually, “yes, I consider it to be an emergency situation and I am told under federal law that I can make that decision.”

NIALA: Oriana, we've been talking about emergency situations, which of course is a very specific and narrow incidents. What do abortion rights advocates want the Biden administration to be doing in addition to providing guidance in this situation?

ORIANA: So we know that the Biden administration has taken several steps since Roe was overturned to kind of respond to that specific decision. So we have, for example, President Biden last week did an executive order, to protect abortion access. But even then this executive order, some legal experts are a little bit confused as to what exactly it does, or whether he has the authority to be able to protect abortion access. An executive order cannot prevent a state from banning abortion considering the Roe v Wade being overturned means that states get to decide an abortion. But what advocates want is more than ever have the Biden administration put pressure on lawmakers, to get rid of the filibuster so that Congress can pass legislation to protect abortion access under federal law.

NIALA: Oriana Gonzalez is a healthcare reporter for Axios. Thanks, Oriana.

ORIANA: Thank you Niala.

NIALA: In a moment: the wildfire endangering sequoia trees in California.

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NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo. A wildfire in Yosemite National Park has expanded almost 10 times to more than 2000 acres since it started on Friday. The rapidly growing Washburn Fire in California is threatening some of the world's oldest sequoia trees and around 1600 people have been evacuated from the area. Dr. Maureen Kennedy is an assistant professor at the University of Washington in Tacoma, focusing on wildfire ecology, and is here to explain what's going on. Hi, Dr. Kennedy.

MAUREEN KENNEDY: Hi, thanks for having me.

NIALA: So we've seen firefighters actually setting up sprinkler systems in the area. How much will that protect the trees as well as perhaps bring the fire under control?

MAUREEN: Well, there's a lot of sort of dimensions happening when we consider how a wildfire might behave, particularly around this grove of trees. We actually think about this, what we call the wildfire triangle. And that's composed of the fuels themselves. So the things that are actually burning in the fire they're composed of the weather and they're composed of the topography or the train. So how hilly it is uphill or downhill. And of course we can't really change the weather once the fire starts, can't really change the topography, but it's the amount and the dryness of the fuels are actually something that we can change and could be effective with additional active management around those areas.

NIALA: How concerned are you right now about these sequoia trees?

MAUREEN: So the trees themselves, I was just looking through some of the history through there. And when we think about those fuels again, that area has actually had a fairly good history of prescribed fire which is expected to change the fire behavior as the fire moves into the Sequoia Grove. Some Sequoia trees will likely die from the fire, whether it will devastate the grove is really difficult to predict, but they have set up that area to be in the best possible situation as the fire moves through it.

NIALA: Dr. Kennedy in this part of the world, wildfires are common and have been historically, how is this different?

MAUREEN: So what's happened is, since European settlement and colonization in the Western states, we've had a history of trying to suppress all of the wildfires, and that's created increased fuels. Fuels are closer together, the fire can more easily spark and ignite and move through a forest. And then you couple that with climate change, making the fire weather itself worse. You put those together, we’ve basically created a recipe for the worst kinds of fires that can occur. We should be expecting fires in these areas. What we really need to do is try to replace some of these bad fires, these conditions we've created for these worse kinds of fires with what we like to call the good fires, those prescribed fires that are of low intensity that can clear out the fuels. The kinds of indigenous fire practices that we can learn from to really sort of manage the forest, restore that structure that can then make those good kinds of fires hopefully self-sustaining and prevent these worst kinds of fires that create the highest risks for human lives, cultural resources, and property.

NIALA: And when we think about the Mariposa Grove, which has more than 500 of these giant Sequoia trees, what is lost as if we lose some of those trees, even just a few of them.

MAUREEN: So there is an ecological role, but there's also a cultural role that these trees have played, in Western history in indigenous history. And then of course, if you think about ecologically, the role that all of that carbon that's contained in those trees themselves that have been held onto for thousands of years, being released into the atmosphere by being burnt up if, if they are combusted, then that's another exacerbating feedback with climate change itself.

NIALA: Dr. Marine Kennedy is assistant professor in wildfire ecology at the University of Washington in Tacoma. Thank you for being with us professor Kennedy.

MAUREEN: Thank you.

NIALA: One quick immigration policy update before we go, today -

President Biden has extended Temporary Protected Status for some Venezuelan migrants for another 18 months. Since March 2021, about 343,000 eligible Venezuelans have been able to temporarily live and work in the United States under humanitarian protection. For years millions in Venezuela have struggled to get food and medicine – and have fled to other countries around the world, including the U.S.

14 other countries are currently designated for temporary protected status including Haiti, Ukraine and Afghanistan.

That’s all we’ve got for you today! You can reach our team at podcasts at axios dot com or reach out to me on twitter. You can also text me at (202) 918-4893.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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