Swallowtail butterflies frolic on the wind. Vireos and rock wrens sing their hearts out by the recovering creek. Spiders and other predators chase their next meal. Through it all, John Alcock observes, records, and delights in what he sees. In a once-burnt area, life resurges. Plants whose seeds and roots withstood an intense fire become habitat for the returning creatures of the wild. “After the Wildfire,” published by University of Arizona Press ($16.95), describes the remarkable recovery of wildlife in the Mazatzal Mountains in central Arizona.
It is the rare observer who has the dedication to revisit the site of a wildfire, especially over many years and seasons. But naturalist John Alcock returned again and again to the Mazatzals, where the disastrous Willow fire of 2004 burned 187 square miles. Documenting the fire’s aftermath over a decade, Alcock thrills at the renewal of the once-blackened region. Walking the South Fork of Deer Creek in all seasons as the years passed, he was rewarded by the sight of exuberant plant life that in turn fostered an equally satisfying return of animals ranging from small insects to large mammals.
Alcock clearly explains the response of chaparral plants to fire and the creatures that reinhabit these plants as they come back from a ferocious blaze: the great spreadwing damselfly, the western meadowlark, the elk, and birds and bugs of rich and colorful varieties.
Following is an excerpt from Alcock’s book, which is at once a journey of biological discovery and a celebration of the ability of living things to reoccupy a devastated location.
The Willow Fire
and its aftermath
June 2004 and April 2005
On June 24, 2004, a lightning strike started a fire in the Mazatzal Mountains not far from the town of Payson. The fire grew rapidly and eventually consumed nearly 200 square miles of forest and chaparral before running out of steam many days later in July. During the time it was blazing, almost 1,000 firefighters joined battle to keep the fire out of Payson, a goal that was achieved.
But by the time the intense Willow Fire was history, it had destroyed large parts of the unoccupied Mazatzals.
At the time it occurred, the Willow Fire was the third-largest wildfire in Arizona history, but since 2004, several others have superseded it. Indeed, of the 10 largest fires ever recorded in our state, eight have flamed up in the last decade.
These big, destructive fires were started by lightning, arson, stupidity, and the like, but they probably owed their eventual large size and ferocity to a combination of factors, such as the long history of fire suppression in some Arizona forests that enabled big fuel loads to accumulate, as well as drought and high temperatures, which dried out the forests and made them vulnerable to lightning and other fire starters.
One double-barreled fire owed its beginnings to an arsonist in one place and a stranded motorist, who set a bonfire to catch the attention of potential rescuers, in another. The nonarsonist was rescued by a helicopter, but the forest in which she had become lost was not saved. In fact, the two fires eventually joined up and created a monster inferno that for a time was on the verge of incinerating some of the mountain towns in northeastern Arizona.
Many of the recent big fires occurred during the very dry, very hot premonsoon, a time when many storms occur that produce no rain, only thunder and lightning. These conditions are perfect for fire ignition, and the Willow Fire was one such result. Whatever its cause, the wildfire drastically changed the landscape of the Mazatzals.
These changes are what this book is all about because I have had the privilege of tracking what has happened to Deer Creek in the years since the Willow Fire, a task I began in April 2005 when I talked my wife, Sue, into coming with me on the drive up to Deer Creek so that we could see what the place looked like nine months or so after the event. Neither of us knew what to expect at our destination.
But once we reached the creek, we found the effects of the fire were still very obvious and somewhat upsetting, indeed so much so that Sue decided that she did not want to walk the South Fork Trail again anytime soon. What we saw at the outset was a stream course that had been greatly widened by violent floods that had come down the drainage after the fire.
Although on the day of our visit, only a thin ribbon of silvery water ran down the middle of what was now a broad and rocky creek, at other times, there must have been a torrent rampaging downstream from bank to bank.
The Willow Fire had burnt the chaparral down to the ground and also destroyed the trees that once made the riparian zone of the creek proper a special place. When rains came, as they were sure to do eventually, the water rushed straight off the barren hillsides and into the now obstacle-free creek.
Flash floods cut deeply into the creek bed while sweeping the adjacent banks clean. Sycamores that had once arched gracefully over the shallow stream were reduced to charcoal stumps buried under the rocks that the floodwaters pushed in front of them. A few dead sycamores still stood in the middle of the now greatly enlarged stream bed, but others had been completely uprooted and tossed downstream to lie in jumbles here and there.
Junipers on the nearby hillside were blackened and leafless, some with long black strips of burnt bark dangling from dead trunks. Most still stood upright but without a hint of life except for a scattered handful of specimens that had somehow escaped the worst effects of the fire. These lucky trees sported a few limbs whose green juniper needles signaled that they had survived and were attempting a comeback.
Upstream, where the floods had cut channels into what had once been a shallow U-shaped basin that contained the old creek, bare rock walls six feet high (or even higher) now rose straight up above what was a trickle of water today but had been anything but a trickle in the postfire past.
The grimness of the landscape was, however, softened considerably by the greenery that had sprung up on the ravaged hillsides. In fact, great stands of barley, the plants nearly two feet tall, covered much of the north-facing slope on one side of the creek. This grass had replaced the previous chaparral of small scrubby oaks, barberries, and acacias, perhaps because the U.S. Forest Service had used the seeds of common barley to stabilize vegetation-free soils, which the Willow Fire had created in abundance.
Bill Hart of the Tonto National Forest tells me that it is standard practice to broadcast the seeds of one or another variety of barley in fire-damaged environments on the grounds that barley is a nonpersistent annual. As a result, the introduced grass would be replaced by native plants after a year or so, during which the nonnative barley would keep entire hillsides from sliding down into the creek.
My experience tells me that the nonnative barley used in the Mazatzals did indeed quickly disappear. The same thing happened when the Forest Service broadcast barley seed (among other species) in an effort to repair the huge burned area produced by the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002.
Be that as it may, the Forest Service now says that since the mid-2000s, it prefers to use the seeds of native plants as erosion mitigators following wildfires (but European barley, a domesticated nonnative species, was still being used in a low-persistence mix as late as 2012 after a fire in central Arizona).
Unfortunately, the seeds of native species are considerably more costly than barley seeds; I hope that, in return for the added expense, the natives do an even better job of soil stabilization than the nonnative exotics. The data on this point are hard to come by, but a number of papers are not encouraging in this regard.
In the eastern Cascades of Washington, for example, the use of native seeds did little to reduce erosion or speed the recovery of native plants in the burned area. In fact, in a review of the published accounts on the effects of postfire seeding, a team of researchers led by D. L. Peppin concluded that it did not matter much whether native or nonnative seeds were used; postwildfire seeding did little to reduce erosion, while having a negative effect overall in the reestablishment of the native flora.
Along the lower stretches of Deer Creek, in places where barley apparently had not been broadcast in the preceding months, a diversity of small native annuals had come back already and were covering what had recently been totally barren, pebble-strewn reaches. The winter-spring rains from 2004 to 2005 had triggered the germination and growth of such delights as bright yellow desert marigolds, magenta owl’s clover, and even some barestem larkspurs, an attractive delphinium of modest size whose deep blue flowers contrasted with the largely vegetation-free creek banks.
On steep patches of dirt and gravel, albeit in only a few places, clumps of stemless primroses had also taken hold and now sported showers of large white flowers. I suspect, but do not know for sure, that these plants and more were benefiting from the extra nitrogen contained in the soil, courtesy of the dead plants that had been charcoaled and made available for recycling by the Willow Fire.
Whatever the reason, their presence helped make the dead trees and gouged stream bed slightly easier to countenance. Although death and destruction were still the dominant features of Deer Creek, the occurrence of plants that were common here before the fire told me that chaparral plants have the ability to rebound after a fiery disaster. A recovery to celebrate for persons with time on their hands.