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California wildfire threatens the oldest and tallest juniper tree in the US

(CNN) — The Donnell Fire had already scorched more than 29,000 acres and was only 26% contained as it tore toward the oldest juniper tree in the United States.

The blaze, burning in the Stanislaus National Forest in California’s Sierra Nevada, was just half a mile away over the weekend and threatening to engulf the landmark tree — believed to be at least 2,000 years old.

But on Tuesday the US Forest Service breathed a sign of relief as firefighters said they had managed to stop the blaze destroying the famous Bennett Juniper.

It may be the only one in the world

Named after naturalist Clarence Bennett, who began his study of this particular tree in the 1890s, the Bennett Juniper is not just the oldest juniper tree, but also the tallest example of the species in the nation.

“It’s the largest tree of its species that it exists, which makes it very historic, and unique. Junipers don’t get that tall,” Maria Benech, US Forest Service representative assigned to the Donnell fire, told CNN.

There are many different species of the juniper, this particular tree is a western juniper. Western junipers usually grow to around 30 feet tall and live up to a thousand years, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The magnificent 82-feet-tall tree is under the care of “Save the Redwoods League,” a nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect and restore redwood forests in California.

“The Bennett is not a redwood tree, but it sits in one of the the properties owned by the League, so they care for it and manage it,” Benech said.

Benech said the tree is also quite large. According to the League’s website, it’s about 7 feet 2 inches wide, and some core samples of the tree indicate that it could even be 6,000 years old.

CNN reached out to Save the Redwoods League for further comment.

Protecting a historic tree

Over 12,500 firefighters are working on at least 11 wildfires in California, and the fires have killed at least six firefighters, and four civilians.

More than 11,000 people remain under mandatory evacuation across California, and the area where the Bennett Juniper stands was also evacuated.

Because of the mandatory evacuation, firefighters had to evaluate the conditions prior to sending crews in to protect the tree and homes in the area. “The firefighters went miles ahead of the tree to protect the area, and stop the fire from spreading,” said Benech.

Benech said they knew the exact location of the tree and they were able to get to it a day after the fire started, on August 1.

“We helped the fire department by preparing as soon as possible, and we built fire lines within several hundred feet of the tree,” said Benech.

Benech said large airtankers made a key contribution to saving the tree by spraying fire retardant to help contain the blaze in the surrounding area.