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Many Fountain Hills residents travel the Beeline Highway headed for Rim Country and the mountains for recreation. Just past the Bush Highway, moving at highway speeds, travelers may or may not notice they are passing through a magnificent forest of saguaro cacti.

With the recent Bush Fire, it is worth pausing to reflect on the vast destruction of the saguaros and what may be lost to nature for many generations to come.

The saguaro is the icon of the Sonoran Desert, even a cliché of all deserts seen in movies and cartoons depicting the arid climate. Stretching from the western slope of the Mazatzal Mountains and Four Peaks west toward the Verde River, this stand of thousands of cacti has been growing for hundreds of years, and in a flash of a week it may have been destroyed forever. After the fire the saguaros stand tall with faded yellow countenance charred black at the base.

With saguaros stretching in age for hundreds of years it is difficult for experts to predict if or when a recovery of the desert destroyed by fire may take place, but efforts are being made.

In the past 40 to 50 years there has been a significant uptick in the number of desert wildfires plaguing the Sonoran Desert. Population interface and an end to the cattle ranching that kept invasive grasses that serve as flash fuels chewed down are among the key ingredients to the number of wildfires. Since the early 1990s Fountain Hills has had a number of close encounters with desert fires.

In the spring of 1993 there was a series of fires in near proximity to where the Bush Fire started along the Beeline. Following those fires, a study group that included the Pacific Southwest Research Station, USDA Forest Service; Cal State University, San Bernardino and the Mesa Ranger District of Tonto National Forest converged to study the fire damage with hopes of gaining insights into the long-term impact of the damage.

The study showed that the immediate mortality rate for the saguaro was 19 percent on burned sites. The normal mortality rate for saguaro naturally is about two percent. More than 60 percent of the saguaros were girdled with fire damage and 90 percent showed some form of fire damage.

The study projected that the long-term mortality rate could reach 80 percent. A 10-year post-fire study in 2003 showed that the mortality rate ranged from about 17 percent to 52 percent depending on the intensity of fire in the study plots.

Many of the damaged cacti were taken down by wind over the years while others gave way to disease and wildlife damage.

The studies revealed some positive signs as some of the fire-damaged saguaros continued to grow and sprouted new limbs during the post-fire decade. It takes longer to see how seedlings manage following a fire. Much of the vegetation that serve as “nursery plants” for saguaro seedlings were either destroyed or damaged by fire need to recover before they can serve as protectors for the young saguaros.

The Rio example

Residents in Fountain Hills and Rio Verde in 1995 remember well the firestorm that erupted with a lightning strike in July. The blaze was named the Rio Fire and eventually swept across 23,000 acres with 14,000 within McDowell Mountain Park. The damage to wildlife and vegetation in the park was devastating leaving some to wonder at the time if the natural habitat would ever recover.

In an article for A Peek at the Peak Magazine in 2017, the late Bob Mason, historian and author who resided in Rio Verde at the time of the Rio Fire, described the efforts to restore the park after the fire.

The volunteer McDowell Park Association along with park staff worked on a rather unique program to try and restore some of the damage cactus.

“Saguaros were identified that were too badly burned to survive, but with arms that were still alive,” Mason wrote. “Where possible these (arms) were detached and planted in a nursery. When they developed a rudimentary root system of their own they were to be transplanted into barren areas to speed the revegetation process.”

Following the fire a restoration fund was established that raised more than $17,000 toward the effort. Also, area nurseries provided other vegetation to be planted by volunteers that numbered in the thousands. Fountain Hills artist Brian Schader created original paintings that depict the lightning strike that started the fire and an “after” scene showing the desert restoration. Selling those paintings raised a considerable amount.

Unfortunately, being the desert drought conditions persisted in ensuing years and the new plants did not receive enough water to lead to a successful restoration effort.

While there was no funding for the county to conduct formal studies on the fire recovery in the park, Mason relied on observations by an experienced park ranger to assess the post-fire recovery.

Paul “Crash” Marusich, the ranger at the park in the years after the Rio Fire, reported after a few years that new seedlings of nearly all species returned to the landscape. Now some 25 years after that fire, except for the tall saguaros, much of the Sonoran landscape in McDowell Mountain Park has a lush growth hospitable to wildlife and outdoor enthusiasts. With nature’s hand, there would appear there is some hope for the saguaro forest burned by the Bush Fire.