The Chiricahua Mountains

Catastrophic fires and other rare species

Nadia and I took a road trip recently. Nadia is a fan of the movie "The Fast and the Furious." When we hit this section of road, she adjusted the stereo and pretended to be turning on the "Nox," and we found out how long it took the Red Rocket to go from zero to a hundred.

It wasn't long.

We were heading to the Chiricahua Mountains, about 2 1/2 hours southeast of Tucson. Here's a view from the Chiricahuas looking west.

I'd read about the "catastrophic" fires in the Chiricahua Mountains back in 1994. All the newspaper articles talked about how the forest was "destroyed," "charred," and "blackened." It all sounded heartbreaking for someone who loved nature, and I was anxious to see what a destroyed forest would look like.

Here we see the view from the Chiricahuas looking east.

Imagine my surprise when we got there and the forest wasn't destroyed at all! The forest that we found ourselves in had changed, certainly, but was not "destroyed." It was still there!

Nadia explained to me that fire is a normal part of the forest ecology, necessary in order for new plants to grow, part of the natural cycle.

"But I read all about the recent "Aspen" fire in the Catalinas (the mountain range directly north of Tucson) in the local newspaper!" I told Nadia, staring at all the grass and tree shoots. "They said that a 'catastrophic' fire like that one, and this one here, the Rattlesnake fire, would damage the forest so badly that hundreds and hundreds of years would be required for the forest to recover."

"Aspen fire, indeed!" Nadia laughed. "Aspen can only grow once you get rid of some of these too-thickly-growing conifers, and fire is nature's way of doing it. Take a look here," she said, gesturing at the scene above. "These aspens have grown up since the "catastrophic" Rattlesnake fire 9 years ago. Pretty soon this mountain will once again be ablaze with a fire of another sort, the beautiful fire of the autumn colors of a western aspen forest. That's something that's been too rare of a sight around here."

She was making sense -- Darn her! -- but.... well, I'd read the newspaper pretty closely. "What about all the loss of soil?" I asked her. "I read that it gets eroded and damaged by the heat."

"I read that, too," she mused. "I wonder if those writers have ever been up in these mountains? Soil! What, do they think we're growing corn up here? These trees grow out of solid rock, they do it all the time," she said, climbing up a rock that actually did have a tree growing out of it."

"Oh, don't get me wrong," she said. "Soil's important, but this forest will make more. It all gets recycled. The important thing is to know that this is all a natural process. Yeah, this fire burned a little hot," she said, looking at another new aspen grove, "but this place is fine..."

"...there's no environmental disaster here," she continued. "There's no loss of biodiversity, no loss of habitat, very few animals would have been hurt in a fire like this. This is just nature's way. We don't always understand it, but we should trust it. Nature's way is what gave us these mountains and forests to begin with, and we will never be able to improve on that."

"This fire burned in a mosaic." Nadia was in an unusually chatty mood, obviously on a subject near and dear to her heart. "See that hill over there? The fire burned part of it, leaving little groves of trees around to reseed the area. The burned area opens up to more sunlight, letting grass and aspens grow first, then eventually the conifers, like pines and firs, will take over again. That makes a mix of micro-environments, open meadows, new growth, old growth. It's healthy."

I was ready for a break, and sat down on a rock. Overhead a hawk called.

A lizard was hanging out on a rock, watching the world turn.

This "destroyed" forest was looking pretty good. I chewed on a stick, thinking about the necessity of fire for the forest. "Then why," I finally asked, breaking our reverie, "why do we spend millions of dollars trying to put these fires out? Why do we spread toxic flame retardant and dig the whole place up? That can't be too good for the environment, especially considering that the fire never goes out, anyway, until some rain comes along. Why don't we just fire-proof buildings, thin the trees out for a couple hundred yards around radio towers, and leave the rest alone?"

"Good question," she said.



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