The world's second-biggest tree, a sequoia known as the Washington Tree, has become a fractured shadow of its former self.
But officials at Sequoia National Park say they don't know for sure if it is dying. The tree, which is probably at least 2,500 years old, has lost more than half its 254-foot height in a forest fire and recent winter storms and doesn't have many branches with green growth left.
"We don't know if it's dying or not," said Bill Tweed, chief interpretive ranger at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. "There still are those green branches -- those could keep the tree alive an unknown number of years -- but it's not going to be the same tree that it was."
Park officials said the tree, named after George Washington, will probably outlive its human mourners. Some sequoias in worse shape have continued to live for centuries.
Media from around the world have inquired about the tree, which is now 115 feet tall. But park officials want to dispel any notions of its imminent demise.
One group from Arizona was so concerned that it called park officials last week offering to donate miracle tree food that they thought could help restore the sequoia's health. Another caller asked for a piece of the tree as a souvenir to commemorate its death.
"It has been quite heartening for me to see how much people have cared," said Alexandra Picavet, a spokeswoman for the parks.
"One branch with green leaves connected by live tissue to one root" is all that's needed for a tree to be considered alive, Tweed said.
Finding the Washington Tree involves effort. It takes about an hour to drive the 17 miles of twisting road from the park's entrance to Giant Forest. A paved road leads to the world's biggest tree by volume, the famed General Sherman, and from there it's a 1.5-mile hike through deep forest to the Washington Tree.
In its prime, the Washington stood more than 254 feet tall, with a base circumference of more than 101 feet. But a lighting-induced fire toppled nearly 20 feet of the tree's crown in 2003, and last month's winter storms reduced its height by another 120 feet.
The tree has shown increased signs of aging. A distinctive branch used to curl outward into the shape of an arm flexing a muscle, but since the lightning fire, a massive chunk of the sundered branch now lies about 20 feet from the tree's base.
It is also scarred with thick black vertical lines. Through a fire-induced opening at the tree's base, sunlight and snowfall can be seen.
In 1999, researchers were allowed to study the tree and rappelled about halfway down its hollow core.
Tony Caprio, a fire ecologist and dendrochronologist for the two parks, said the 2003 fire helped form the tree's hollow core. He said that before 2003, the last known fire the tree experienced was in 1864.
Caprio said sequoia bark has evolved to become very fibrous. He said the trees have many air pockets that create ideal insulation for surviving fires. He added that the wood from a sequoia is not highly flammable and that their towering height can protect the crown from catching fire.
Officials said the Washington Tree's exact age won't be known until death has occurred and they can check for sure. "Sequoia time is so different from human time," said Jody Lyle, fire education specialist for the parks. "With the life spans of humans and these trees -- sometimes we want to imagine they are the same."
Tweed said the tree can die naturally in two main ways. The shallow root system for most sequoias, only 5 to 10 feet underground, can give way, causing the tree to fall. He said this is how about 90% of all Sequoias die. Or a fire can damage a tree so severely that it dies. Tweed predicts the latter will happen to the Washington Tree.
The successor as the world's second-biggest tree may live in the neighborhood. The 267-foot-tall General Grant, in nearby Kings Canyon, could earn that designation -- but it might have to wait for centuries to pass.