(photo by Sheri Ashley)
On Mother’s Day, 2011, the Horseshoe 2 fire broke out in the Chiricahua Mountains in SE Arizona. The exact cause has yet to be identified, but it is said to be human-set, perhaps from an untended campfire. The result was devastating: almost the entire mountain range, a full 230,000+ acres, was burned. Parts are okay, other parts are bad, many are worse.
Here is a NASA map showing the area burned by the fire (basically the whole mountain range):
I was very unnerved when I heard about this fire back in May. The Chiricahuas are one of my favorite places on the planet. I have been herping here for 13 years. Its biodiversity rivals any other place in the US. I was all set to teach the first herpetology course offered by the Southwestern Research Station, a chance to spend 10 days in the mountains and surrounding desert. All this and more was at risk with this massive fire.
Luckily, the firefighters were able to set backburns around the research station to save it, and lower Cave Creek Canyon is reasonably untouched by the fire. Here is a backburned area near the Herb Martyr campground. The brush burned, but the trees should live:
But just up the hill from Herb Martyr, this is what you see. It's just awful.
The conditions that led to the extreme magnitude of this fire have been described as a “perfect storm.” First the area was in a major drought this spring, having had virtually no winter rains. Second, in February there was a major freeze that caused many oak tree limbs to fall to the ground, providing tinder. Third, the fire started in May, over a month before the onset of the summer monsoon rains- normally, fires here are caused by lightning during the monsoons and are quickly put out. Finally, and devastating and inexplicable, unusually high winds rose up right when the fire started, throwing embers across the range and causing a virtual explosion.
But the course went on, and we had an amazingly successful herping session, as described here, here, and here. But everywhere we went in the mountains, we were reminded of the devastation wrought by this fire. All the campgrounds were closed for fear of floods and landslides. Even access to hiking and driving through most of the mountain range was closed. From Portal, the highest up you can get is Turkey Creek, then you hit this:
Above Turkey Creek, sights like this are common:
Word has it that areas higher up the mountains, including Onion Saddle and Rustler Park, are burned to a crisp. This is so hard for me to imagine. I was terribly disappointed that we didn’t get a chance to view this in person. By staying down at the research station, where the habitat is relatively untouched, I felt like I was being kept from seeing the reality of the situation. As we did our class, I felt guilty, guilty that I went about my herping business as though everything was fine, when my mecca was horrifically wounded. It was a terrible, powerless feeling.
I found myself taking a much deeper look at the non-herp things around me than I normally would. I looked at plants! And they were amazing! All around me, sprouts were bursting forth from the charred bodies of their parents.
I am not a plant biologist. I am not a fire ecologist. But I am an optimist. Maybe it’s because I cannot bear the idea of my beautiful mountains dying. That’s right, fire! Those are MY mountains! And you cannot take them from me. They’ll be back. And so will I.