It’s amazing the lines and boundaries that a forest fire draws. From the images you see in the media during a raging fire, you can imagine that the fire burns down valley and up-mountain clearing everything in its path, evenly and equally. Not so.
We live snuggled up against the Gila National Forest. The Forest trails are my go-to for dog-walking, friend-hiking, animal-tracking, and mind-settling. Especially when it’s hot in town, I head up-hill. It might be almost 80° at 7:30 in the morning when I leave my house at 6,000 feet, but at 7,000+ feet elevation on a Ponderosa-forested trail, my bare arms are chill at 63°.
The Forest has a history of wildfires, some of which have burned thousands and hundred-thousands of acres, some coming within too few miles of town. Whitewater-Baldy 2012. Silver Fire 2013. Signal Peak Fire 2014. Other years, multiple small fires burn a few hundred to a couple of thousand acres. Right now, eleven smallish fires are burning on the Gila.
The education for me has been to see that the fires don’t take everything. They create a patchwork quilt of burned-to-sticks mixed with barely-touched forest and gradations in between. There is, once the embers die out, a succession over the next years, life that returns to the most badly burned areas, including plants, insects and birds. In fact, there are birds that come just for the insects that erupt from the fallen logs and dead standing trunks. Rewilding at its most elemental.
I experienced again this patchwork effect in the last couple of weeks. Week 1, with the Thursday Group, we hiked up McMillan trail, a narrow trail that heads uphill from the back of McMillan Campground. Although the creek that drains this upward-bound canyon is dry now, it ran with early rains and snow melt, feeding a mixed forest of hardwoods and pines plus a lush understory of wildflowers and poison ivy. We passed an old tree trunk, split and harboring many years of rodent-chewed pine cone bits.
Not quite two miles up, we turned on a side trail that led into a grotto backed by a stone cliff streaked with desert wash, the stain left on the rock from falling water. This is old forest at its best.
Week 2, a friend, Dog and I went up Signal Peak Rd a short way and diverted onto a little-used forest road to the left. Heavily forested, with a few dispersed campsites not recently used, cool, green and fragrant. We spotted bowl-shaped spiderwebs holding the sunlight.
Openings in the canopy let us look up the side of the next hill, a mass of rock and hoodoos. Others have traveled this road as well: turkey, elk, cow and a large black bear, all leaving evidence in the muddy spots on the track.
Having never been up the length of Signal Peak Rd to the fire scar and the fire tower, I decided to drive a ways up, not necessarily to the peak, but to find the transition between old forest and new forest.
It wasn’t too many miles before we broke out of the Ponderosa into the recovery area. The first in the line of succession is grass, mullein and wildflowers, which were there in abundance. Next in the line is NM Locust, typically the first tree to recolonize a burn scar in our forests. Depending upon the elevation, aspen may come next, though that doesn’t seem to be the case here. In the minds of many people, tragically, the vanilla-scented Ponderosa take decades to return. And yet. And yet, it won’t be many years before there will be nurseries of little ponderosa, gathered as a bunch of children in clusters among the Locusts, until they come to dominate. At least, that’s the plan.
I got to thinking that McMillan Campground and trail must be pretty close to the burn area on Signal Peak, even though there are such stark differences between old forest and new. I got on the Forest’s website and pulled up the satellite map. From green to burned is a distance of one ridge, a slight few miles. On the other side of the burn is another favorite hiking area still intact, Meadow Creek, just another ridge away. Here’s the satellite image with the trail marked, the Signal Peak Lookout circled and the burn scar highlighted. But look now, because it’s coming back. It won’t be the same for a long time but it will be—and is—wild again.