Time to Burn

Is the Lone Fire a preview of California-style infernos to come?

Like the calm in the eye of a storm, like a tornado that rips the roof and walls off a house without disturbing a breakfront full of fine china, the forest clearing where the Lone Fire started on April 27 is strangely unburned.

The oaks and pines bordering the trail are still green; dry leaves blow across the drainage where some mindless fool tossed a cigarette or left a campfire unattended. From there the fire quietly crackled into the brush.

But it roared out the other side, rushing uphill through a stand of ponderosa pine, vaporizing hundred-year-old trees. Then it tore through the wilderness for 11 days until it finally flickered out.

From the pine stand, the fire climbed to within 500 feet of Four Peaks' 7,645-foot summit. It whirled south around the mountain, within sight of Apache Lake, howled frightfully through the desert and chaparral on the western slopes that lead down to the Beeline Highway, burned through Buck Basin, and ran its hundred-foot-high flames for seven miles straight at Punkin Center, which is more a jumble of cafes, gas stations and double-wide trailers on Highway 188 than a town. Then the fire stopped short, changed its mind and followed the wind back to the south, gobbling up more chaparral, edging all the way down to the road that skirts Roosevelt Lake before it burned itself out.

It took a thousand firefighters to corral it; no one would suggest they actually extinguished it--they might just as well have tried to catch a tidal wave in a teacup.

"As far as trying to put the fire out when it's making a run up the slope, you just don't do that," says Ron Moody, a fuels management officer for the U.S. Forest Service's regional office in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The best the firefighters could do was try to contain the blaze to keep it out of the pines up top and the Sonoran Desert down below. That effort cost at least $5 million. And when the smoke cleared, more than 61,000 acres had been razed by the largest fire in Arizona's collective memory.

The Four Peaks Wilderness Area took a direct hit. About 90 percent of the ponderosa pine forest up top--relicts from a big fire in 1959--was decimated. The big yellow pines and the thick understory of juniper and oak trees had been reduced to a black-velvet painting. The ash on the trail was shin deep. White lines on the ground showed where trees had fallen and incinerated; some had evaporated completely, leaving smoking holes in the ground.

For all the hype and coverage the fire received, it was in fact less environmentally devastating than last summer's Rio Fire in north Scottsdale. The Rio Fire scoured 23,000 acres of prime Sonoran Desert, including nearly all of McDowell Mountain Park, leaving blackened saguaros and the twisted skeletons of paloverde trees. Neither of those plants, nor most other desert denizens, has any resistance to fire. It was never part of their evolution, unlike the ecosystems at higher elevations that, until this century, burned regularly, lighted by lightning storms and Native American burnings.

The vast majority of the Lone Fire, however, 80 percent by Forest Service estimates, raged through chaparral, the thick tangle of brush that grows at middle elevations.

Chaparral is supposed to burn, in fact, needs to burn for its own rejuvenation.

The fire tumbled down into the desert stretches--15 percent of the total--mostly in the early morning hours when fires burn at the coolest temperatures, and so they were spared the cactus-broiling hell of the Rio Fire.

But the pines in the sky island below the Four Peaks summit were not so lucky. Many trees that survived the 1959 blaze had been attacked by other predators; their scorched trunks still show the clawlike branches symptomatic of dwarf mistletoe infestation. Unlike the yellow pine giants in Flagstaff and on the Mogollon Rim, these trees were small in diameter. In other words, it was a forest under stress, badly overgrown, a fire waiting to happen.

"It was on its way to becoming an oak woodland," as one Forest Service ranger put it.

Although the daily newspapers have screamed in headlines that it will take the forest 150 years to recover (the length of time it takes for a ponderosa pine to mature), such generalized statements assume that nature, like some anal architect, sets about to rebuild a carbon copy of what was destroyed.

It doesn't. One species succeeds another, depending as much on the laws as the accidents of nature--or on the laws and accidents of mankind.

The oak trees will sprout from their charred stumps. The pines will not; they will have to seed from the surviving trees, and it's too early to say how many will survive. From a high vantage point, the peaks seem draped in a striped Navajo blanket with ruler-straight edges where one color ends and the next begins: a wide black stripe of burned trees next to a brown stripe of scorched trees next to a green stripe of living trees. How many of the latter will live through the coming attacks of insects and drought remains to be seen.

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