Five months ago, three massive wildfires were burning millions of acres of Arizona timberland. The flames are out now, but their destructive power continues today. Large wildfires alter wildlife migration and watershed patterns and leave an indelible scar on the land. But their damage is short-lived over the long-term. Mother Nature is already at work repairing Arizona’s forests, as new grasses and flowers bloom amongst burned-out trees. Bill Edwards, chief ranger with the Douglas District of the Coronado National Forest, says some evidence of the Horseshoe 2 fire has already faded. Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, says a large wildfire is an opportunity to learn from fire behavior, which could save lives in the future.
Story and images by Mark Duggan
A sky island burns…
The 42 Road, or Forest Service Road 42, travels over the crest of the Chiricahua Mountains, one of southeast Arizona’s many “islands in the sky.” It starts in desert lowlands, ascends to almost 9,000 feet, then plunges back to about 3,500 feet. It also travels through the heart of the Horseshoe 2 Fire burn area. The human-caused blaze burned 223,000 acres and came close to the towns of Portal and Paradise. But according to Bill Edwards, ranger for the Coronado National Forest, there were few injuries – a relative rarity among fires of such magnitude.
Today, the 42 Road is open, along with much of the burned area, except for the popular Rustler Park campground near the crest of the range. Edwards says the fire burned with a particular intensity at Rustler Park, so it could remain closed until next summer.
But despite the severely burned landscape, there’s also a verdant explosion of new growth. Flowers and grasses are bursting forth, asserting their dominance around blackened trees. And providing forage for wildlife. Edwards says many species have returned to the burn area and are taking advantage of the new growth.
The Horseshoe Two wasn’t the only Arizona wildfire that made news this year. The Monument Fire burned more than 30,000 acres and forced evacuations near Sierra Vista. Another wildfire burned in the mountains northeast of Nogales.
But the one that captured the most attention was the Wallow Fire.
A record-breaking blaze…
It was the largest wildfire in Arizona history, burning 538,000 acres and exacting a heavy toll. Thirty-two residences and countless White Mountain campgrounds, trails and fishing areas were destroyed. Several firefighters were injured and the towns of Alpine, Eager and Greer were on evacuation alert. When it was contained seven weeks after it started, $109,000,000 had been spent on it.
Its effects still loom large, six months on. The Wallow Fire burned more thoroughly than the Horseshoe Two Fire. Barren slopes and dead trees abound. So does sediment from erosion. After a fire, steep slopes can no longer sustain heavy rain, so the soil erodes and runs downstream.
However, it’s not all destruction. Like the Horseshoe Two burn area more than one hundred miles south, there are many hillsides lush with new growth. Riots of wildflowers create luminescent carpets of color, standing in contrast to a dull, ashen black. Always, the grasses and flowers come first, providing forage for the wildlife that slowly returns after being displaced by the fire. Life is gradually returning to…well, not normal.
Forest restoration experts say a fire like the Wallow will forever alter the flow patterns of watersheds in the Apache-Sitgreaves. The runoff also encourages rampant non-native growth. Wally Covington directs the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University. He notes that a lot of the new flora is already over-grown, already a new fuel source for future fires.
From the Coronado to the Apache-Sitgreaves and beyond, Arizona’s forests are in a delicate state. The unburned areas are dry and overgrown, ripe for wildfire. And in the burn areas, new flora continues to take over a scarred landscape.
But one can’t help but wonder if all that new growth is just more fuel for another wildfire.