The life of an ancient colossus of the B.C. wilderness appears to be over.
The Elaho Giant, a centuries-old Douglas fir growing in the Upper Elaho Valley, was caught in a wildfire last June. Although firefighters tried their best to save the famous tree, video shot this week shows a black, lifeless trunk and bare branches at a time when fir trees should be draped in needles.
Squamish resident John Buchanan shot the video on Thursday after making the dangerous hike through downed trees and landslide-prone terrain. Although he cautions anyone against following in his footsteps, he’s been itching to discover the tree’s fate for nearly a year.
“It was completely black. That fire had gone straight up the Giant. The root system is extremely dry. I put my hand in it; it was all ash,” he said. “There was nothing green; there were no green needles anywhere.”
Buchanan acknowledged that he’s no biologist, but UBC forestry professor Sally Aitken took a look at his footage and confirmed his suspicions.
“It definitely appears to be dead,” she said. “It has absolutely no foliage on it, and you can see from the damage around the roots and to the bark. If there’s nothing green in the crown this time of year, it’s extremely unlikely that that tree has the capacity to come back.”
The age of the Giant has never been estimated using a core sample, but many Douglas firs in the area have been dated at more than 1,000 years old. It’s also one of thickest of its species on record, although Aitken disputed reports that it has the third-largest diameter of any Douglas fir.
One reason the Douglas firs in the Elaho Valley have survived for so long is their thick bark, which protects older trees from moderate forest fires. That knowledge had given fans of the Giant some hope that its branches would sprout with green again this spring.
But an intense fire like the one that hit the valley last year can reach the vulnerable inner tissues of the bark and cause severe damage to the roots.
“When you get fires that are very hot and fires that are moving through the crowns of trees, they’re much less likely to be able to survive that,” Aitken said. “It does look like the fire really burned quite hot on the ground around that tree.”
Activists from the Wilderness Committee discovered the Giant in the 1990s as they were flagging a trail route through the valley. The group’s national campaign director, Joe Foy, was disheartened to see the new video of the Giant.
“This is a significant tree, and it looks like we’ve lost it,” he said. “The Douglas firs up there are some of the oldest firs recorded. … They have been able to dodge fires for over a thousand years, which is pretty remarkable.”
Much of the Upper Elaho Valley is now a protected area, and Foy said many of oldest trees in that portion of the valley survived the blaze.
Chief Bill Williams of the Squamish Nation was also disappointed to hear of the Giant’s fate.
“Any tree of that stature that is no longer around and cannot benefit the wildlife and others that it’s been doing over hundreds of years is sad indeed,” he said.
Big, old trees like the Giant have been dying in increasing numbers in recent years, according to Aitken.
“With fire, with drought, with the frequency of these things increasing, there’s a trend globally toward increase mortality rates,” Aitken said. “It’s another sad fact coming out of climate change and we will see more of that.”
In an attempt to conserve and track the fates of the province’s largest trees, UBC’s Faculty of Forestry has created the online B.C. Big Tree Registry. The registry allows members of the public to alert scientists about significant trees that have died, suffered damage or been toppled by the wind.