Guest Commentary

A year after the fire, the proof is in: The blaze was good for the mountain

If you followed the overwrought media coverage of last year's catastrophic fires in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, you might think the mountains themselves had been reduced to giant piles of ash waiting to blow away in the wind.

That is, unless you have eyes. In May, I took a walk up Ventana Canyon on the front range of the Catalinas to see for myself.

Through the first half mile, I was confronted with gaggling tourons, no doubt from the resort at the bottom of the canyon, waxing loudly about so-and-so's angioplasty and other weighty matters. Thankfully, once I passed the wilderness boundary, I saw no more humans. But I did find what I suspected I would find, and more.

A little past the Maiden Pools, a tiny oasis of water above a 100-foot waterfall, I reached the edge of the 80,000 acres that burned last summer. The burn came down to the east edge of the watercourse and stopped. As I trudged into the upper canyon, I had the usual oak-juniper-pine and bare rock pastiche that so perfectly characterizes the Catalinas on my left, and the comparatively denuded slope on my right.

Gazing up at the damaged terrain, I thought, "What a great study this would make--one side of the canyon burned; the other did not." The closer I looked, and the farther I walked, the more I realized that the burned part of the mountain was alive, vigorously so, maybe more alive than it's been in a long, long time.

Amid the charbroiled carcasses of oaks and junipers, I saw more flowers than I've ever seen in the Catalinas. The air was thick with their scent and the sounds of their patrons: sunblazing yellows packed with beetles and flies, brilliant oranges and pinks and reds buzzing with hummingbirds, blues and purples full of bumbling bees. Liberally scattered among the flowers were large, healthy bunches of grass.

I pushed myself on up the steep climb out of the canyon to the ridge top, where the burn became particularly dramatic. The trail disappeared into gray, floury ash, difficult to follow but for the many helpful cairns. But here, the spring flowers were thickest of all.

I looked past the colorful display and noticed that almost every blackened oak had a bush-sized clot of fresh green growth bursting from the base of its trunk. Some of the junipers were sending out vivid blue-green shoots directly from the shiny black skin of their trunks, even while dead brown foliage still clung to the ends of their branches. From charcoal nubs of agaves sprang curling shoots of resilient green.

Far from surprising, it all seemed logical after a while. Dead and damaged trees mean less competition for sunlight and water and more grass and flowers. More grass and flowers means more bugs, birds and other wildlife. Mix in some unusual April rains and ashen fertilizer, and voila! I'm trudging through the Garden of the Goddess.

It's as if Mother Nature took a burning scythe and razed the detritus of decades of misguided fire suppression in a single stroke. Drastic, maybe. Destructive, certainly. But not tragic, nor final, nor even necessarily bad.

Think of it: What if your dead skin cells never fell off? What if you could never cut your hair, and even when it died and fell out, it simply became tangled in the new growth that tried to replace it?

Until the fires, the mountain was choking. Now it can breathe again.

On the way down, I stopped to cool my feet in the precious pools. There, in the fading afternoon, I reflected upon the hand-wringing despair that accompanied last summer's fires, the morbid fascination and vicarious tragedy in the daily papers, and rejected it utterly.

So I am sorry to say to you, those who have bravely (foolishly?) built (and rebuilt?) in the forest: Let it burn! By all means, get away while you can and be safe, but do not make the mountain pay for your privilege. Let it burn.

Only a year after the fire, the Catalinas are already vivid again with living things. That they can recover from fire is a biological certainty. That they can bear up under the weight of human "management" is anything but.