Slide Fire Update

A drive through Oak Creek Canyon in northern Arizona this week allowed for a glimpse of conditions since the Slide Fire was extinguished.  Since the beginning of the monsoon season is upon us, worries over the safety of visitors to the canyon in the event of flash flooding has caused many closures.  The camping areas affected by the fire as well as other parking for day use along the canyon are now closed. Thus the photos I post here are all from a moving car, not the best of situations.  However, you can see that if you are looking for fire damage, you will find it, however, most of the beauty that is Oak Creek Canyon remains.

This is the north end of  Slide Rock Park a short time prior to the fire.

This is the north end of Slide Rock Park a short time prior to the fire.

This is the same location currently.

This is the same location currently.

View from bridge at Slide Rock

Heading north, this is the view from Slide Rock Bridge, just below the origin of the fire.

The worst of the burn area, as visible from the road, is where the fire started.  It burned very hot here. Note the discolored ground in the burn area.

Near start of fire Mid burn area First view of burn area above Slide Rock Burn area soil colorAs you drive along the canyon, most of the views to fire damaged areas are blocked by the lush greenery near the creek.

The entrance to Cave Springs Campground

The entrance to Cave Springs Campground

Junipine Resort

Junipine Resort

The fire moved up the steep, rocky hillsides and moved on.

The fire raged up the steep, rocky hillsides and moved on.

As you drive along the switchbacks out of the canyon, you pass some burned areas where fire was stopped right at the road.

As you drive along the switchbacks out of the canyon, you pass some burned areas where fire was stopped right at the road.

You can see from the many signs and banners in Flagstaff, how appreciated the efforts of firefighters were. The question currently on the minds of locals is how much damage could occur due to runoff from the anticipated summer monsoons.  Oak Creek has many fans awaiting the answer, and thinking ahead to their next trip.

Slidefire in Oak Creek Canyon

Smoke filling the Flagstaff sky today from the Slide fire. Photo by Amy Dryden

Smoke filling the Flagstaff sky today from the Slide fire. Photo by Amy Dryden

Two weeks ago we camped with our tent trailer at beautiful Cave Springs Campground in Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona.  We have lived for decades in the area, but never actually camped in the canyon previously.

Yesterday, Tuesday, May 20, a devastating wildfire started in the canyon south of the Cave Springs Campground, and has been whipped along by high winds. Twenty-four hours later it is estimated at 4500 acres and has topped out of the canyon and approaches Flagstaff, Arizona. ABC News 15, reports at this time the fire is zero percent contained. (Air15 fire photos at the link)


In 1910 a devastating wildfire tore through Idaho and Montana. In just two days’ time, the Big Blowup consumed almost three million acres of forested hillsides. Drought and high winds created the perfect conditions for a firestorm. The National Forest Service had recently been created, but fighting the fire required additional help from the US Army and the local miners. At last, a cold front brought a rain storm that put the fire out. Eight-nine lives were lost and the horrifying stories of the survivors motivated the country to create a fire suppression policy.

For most of the last century, the Forest Service put out almost every fire.  The result, unfortunately, has been severely increased forest density. The first settlers in northern Arizona described the forest as possible to ride a horse through at a full gallop.

Thick forest

Today riding at a gallop through the woods around Flagstaff would not be advisable. According to turn of the century reports from the early 1900’s, northern Arizona was mixed conifer forest with grassy undergrowth and large, open areas.  Because of the distance between the large old growth trees, when a wildfire occurred, it burned along the ground, not in the crown of the tree as today.  This allowed the trees to survive a fire, whereas today, everything is killed.

Burned hillside

You can see a burned off area at the top of this hill, with standing snags. The area below the hill was saved by fire-fighting efforts.

Arizona has a dry climate.  Arizona has experienced long drought periods in the past. When the Ponderosa Pines are distressed by lack of moisture, they are prone to the Pine Bark Beetle.  In 2010, 9.2 million acres (Out of 749 million acres of forest land in the United States) of tree mortality was caused by insects and disease. 74 % of that damage was done by the Bark Beetle. Once these stands of trees die, they are tinder waiting for the next lightning strike, careless camper, or tossed cigarette.

The problem is compounded by the number of homes built in the interface area between the forest and the urban areas.  Firefighters are put at risk to save homes from the fast-moving fires.  Much has been learned about caring for our wild lands, and one of the projects now underway is 4FRI. This is the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, working to restore the structure, pattern and composition of fire-adapted ecosystems, which will provide for fuels reduction, forest health, and wildlife and plant diversity. 4FRI aims to implement comprehensive restoration over the next twenty years, including thinning of predominantly small trees across one million acres, and safe controlled burning and natural fire management on much of the landscape.

Downed Ponderosas

Bark Beetle-downed trees

Dry slash pile

Slash piles ready for burning

Fire from car

A controlled burn

Hopefully 4FRI is a solution for implementing landscape-scale forest restoration. It is a problem that will take twenty years or more to solve, with new fires happening each year.  Home owners in the urban interface areas attempt to clear areas around their homes, and create emergency plans for escape should a fire start.