The San Francisco Peaks will never be the same

  • Robyn Slayton-Martin


Our mountain is burning in a fire that we hoped would never happen, a fire that has been hanging over our heads like the sword of Damocles. The heart of our mountain is blazing in an inferno that grew from 50 acres to 5,000 acres in 24 hours. As I write this, it has torched 14,000 acres -- 27 square miles -- and it is not yet contained.

Mountain-biking trails, homes for wildlife, favorite hiking places, springs and centuries-old trees -- all damaged beyond belief. The San Francisco Peaks, the highest point in Arizona and the geologic feature that dominates the city of Flagstaff as well as all of Northern Arizona, have been altered beyond recognition in a matter of hours. Three-hundred-year-old ponderosa pines are exploding in orange flame. My neighbors take photographs of smoke that is now visible from space. We watch it all with tears in our eyes, but we watch. It's the only action we can take, this hopeless inaction.

Most of us understand that wildfire is a necessary and critical part of a forest ecosystem. Living in the middle of the largest ponderosa pine forest on the continent certainly makes you aware of it. In June 1977, Mount Elden, the volcanic dome rising between Flagstaff and the San Francisco Peaks, burned from bottom to top and beyond in just three days.

Wildfire cleanses, burning forest-floor debris, allowing new growth to occur, encouraging nurse trees like aspen to establish themselves and setting the stage for evergreen to grow. Some forest vegetation even requires wildfires to re-seed. The idea that we need wildfire to keep our forests healthy and thriving isn't hard to accept. It's logical, after all -- a part of nature.

But what about those who set unnecessary fires in a forest unusually parched from brutal spring winds? The mountains received 150 inches of snow from Oct. 1 to May 1, but most of it fell in the early part of winter, and the land was completely dried out by mid-May. Unfortunately, there's an outdated, romantic practice that the uninitiated cling to, the notion that camping isn't camping without fire, no matter how dry the landscape.

The Schultz Fire burning now -- one of the biggest in Flagstaff's history -- was apparently started by an abandoned campfire in the Schultz Pass area, a place easily accessible by vehicles, mountain bikers and hikers. The area is crisscrossed by trails that are used by residents and visitors alike, and an ephemeral stream runs through the drainage of Schultz Creek, providing us with the gift of running water during good snow years. Schultz Pass in particular has become popular with campers and out-of-towners, its beauty touted in Arizona Highways Magazine and advertised in newspaper travel sections.

The afternoon before the fire, I hiked through the inner basin of the mountain just over the ridge of the pass. The sun was blazing down and the temperature was around 75 degrees, yet campers had set a roaring fire in the Forest Service campground adjacent to the trailhead. The flames leapt three feet high, blowing sparks into the dry grass surrounding the fire ring. It made me wonder then if it were time to outlaw this dangerous practice; time to tell the public that campfires aren't required for camping; time to let go of the old-fashioned habit that just tore the heart out of the San Francisco Peaks.

I talked to a friend named Robert about all this three days after the fire started. Like me, he's a native of Flagstaff. "It's gone,” he said, meaning everything we loved about living here. "It's bad, and I can't stand it.” An employee of our natural gas company, he described how he'd spent days turning off gas in the neighborhoods vacated by the fire, and then he'd worked more days at hundreds of homes when the evacuation notice was lifted. Every resident had a story to tell about the fire while he worked, and most of the stories focused on fear and loss.

"People were almost crying,” he said. "Kids hung onto my pants leg, asking, ‘What happened?'”

For many of us, the mountain defines us. For a long time it provided a livelihood in logging. Its springs brought us water, and its beauty gave us comfort. This loss is deep. Our community is angry, sad, grieving. We have lost our heart because of someone else's thoughtless choice. We will be different because of it, and there is no real path to healing.

Robyn Slayton-Martin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She teaches English at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Flagstaff fire
Doug Johnston
Doug Johnston
Jun 29, 2010 09:47 PM
My Wife and Daughter called from Flagstaff on their way to Las Vegas the day this fire started. They were fueling the car and mentioned all the smoke North of where they were. I got on line and reported back to them that it was "only" a small fire!
Schultz Fire
Jun 29, 2010 10:00 PM
Just spent a day @ Trappers Lake, Colorado; my mom grew up in the area; her family had the lodge, horse and boat concessions; about 7 years ago or so, fire roared through, burned the original lodge; yes, it will never look the same in her or my life time; but now that she is 80 years old, she was more concerned that few pine/spruce trees were coming on; that more aspen, grasses were growing well after this spring's wet weather. Yes, it is changed; but it isn't destroyed. It is different. Fire is so important for survival of many ecosystems, plants, even animals. We humans have imposed our lifestyles on to the forests; I see the potential after the fires; I see places that desperately need to burn. Here in Colorado the pine bark beetles have wreaked havoc on the trees--worse than any fire. Oops, fires probably would have helped decrease the death by beetles that we see now. However, I in no way condone the irresponsibility of campers and their fires!
Schultz Fire
Jun 30, 2010 08:12 AM
No one would against the role and need for fire in western ecosystems; however, this fire in Flagstaff was simply a waste on all counts. The forest there was overstocked with "doghair" Ponderosa as a result of poor forestry and management over the decades. What would have eventually benefited these forests would have been the reintroduction of a fire regime after an ecologically responsible thinning operation. A regime of groundfires every 10 - 15 years would prevent duff and debris accumulation. It would also kill off young seedlings and trees and help move then forests to their much more fire resistant presettlement historical norm. In wildfires like the Schultz inferno, The excessive fuel loads instead can lead to the destruction of valuable old growth, of which there is very little, and sterilization of forest soils. Never mind the damage done by the firs-fighting operations themselves.

To teh Forest Service's credit, thinning had been proposed for the Schultz Pass area but was successfully appealed by the Center For Biological Diversity since it was too aggressive in its take of large diameter trees and because of endangered species considerations. The sale never was revived by the Forest Service because no contractor could be found due to poor timber prices. Now small-minded individuals blame enviros for the disaster because of this. However, the failure lies first at the proposing agency's door for not writing a sale that would accommodate appropriate environmental concerns,and secondly at Congress's doorstep since they would rather fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, feed an abdominus Defense Department, and subsidize the timber industry (for instances). Additionally, in all candor, the Coconino National Forest has been more concerned with exploiting the forest by supporting the expansion of the infamous ski resort on the Peaks and the use of reclaimed sewage water to make snow so the resort will be profitable on a desert mountain in a time of drought and climate change.

Finally, while of course the fool(s) that started the fire is far more than negligent, it is an antique policy of open fires on public lands that can also bear much of the shame and blame. No great intellect was required to understand that after months of no precipitation, 8% humidity, 20 -30 mph winds on a mountain pass upwind of an overstocked mismanaged forest, a wildfire would be the only possible result of a neglected campfire. In short, the Forest should have been closed. For the future, the juvenile practice of fires on public lands in the West should be confined to closely supervised campgrounds where a thoughtless dullard cannot determine the future of our forests
Phil Clark
Phil Clark
Jun 30, 2010 12:30 PM
It is unfortunate that so many seem to insist on a camp fire no matter the conditions. I like the Forest Service's poster: "If you can't imagine camping without a campfire, try camping without a forest." I've loved Flagstaff from the day I first drove through on Route 66 on the way to Grand Canyon. Living in Page for a few years, when the only decent shopping was in Flag, allowed me to enjoy the mountains and forests in Flag. I remember the many times I'd wake up in the forest after a great visit to Flag, and didn't regret not having a campfire. Not even once!
another perspective...
Jun 30, 2010 02:10 PM
I'll be the first to decry the grievous error in judgment by whoever left that campfire burning. But campfires are not the issue here. The same blaze could have resulted from a lightning strike, flung cigarette, or other ignition source.

The scars on the forest are real and the contrast stark, especially now as the ashes cool. But the impacts of fires to human minds and forest systems are not one and the same. These are fire-adapted forests, and will recover. Decadent stands of aspen in particular, will be rejuvenated by this event. The forest will ultimately be more diverse than it was pre-fire. Wildlife will benefit. All is not gloom and doom on the Peaks.

As far as CBD and their appeal is concerned -- it set the stage for derailing the thinning project that likely would have prevented or greatly reduced impacts of this massive wildfire. That is an unassailable fact. Economic decline hammered the nail the rest of the way in. CBD objections to “excessive” harvest of "large trees" (aka unborn yellow pines) reflect an entirely philosophical position that lacks scientific support and is largely disconnected from facts on the ground. Nonetheless, it is routinely raised, most recently in a just-filed appeal of ANOTHER forest project on the other side of the Peaks.
Micky Dee
Micky Dee
Jun 30, 2010 03:32 PM
Although the forest will renew someday it remains a tragdey for the people who will no longer be able to enjoy it's resources. In Flagstaff, the peaks are the soul and anchor for a city that will be deeply affected in a multitude of ways.

Thinning, logging, and policy can be debated forever, and yes lighting causes many fires. It is however, within our power to greatly reduce the number of human caused fires. As population grows, more people are in the woods, and in every user group there are those who will be careless. As the places we love see heavier use, we need more stringent protections. We simply do not need campfires in the woods. Or fireworks for that matter. Let's discourage both legally. The stars are much easier to see without a fire, and your clothes won't smell like smoke the next morning.

Here in Idaho, as we approach July 4th I watch the seasonal fireworks booths springing up at every shopping center. People will carry their rockets, firecrackers, and bombs to every state in the West and into their campsites for the holidays. Not a comforting thought.
San Francisco Peaks
river girl
river girl
Jul 02, 2010 04:32 PM
Mudshark, CBD was protecting future seed source by protecting 16" diameter trees and larger. Old growth pines provide seeds; younger trees do not. Vilifying CBD isn't the answer, but you might look to the USFS/Dept of Agri for treating our public lands as a cash crop resource, not allowing periodic lightning fires to burn out doghair thickets during most of the 20th century.
Flag fire
Jul 01, 2010 03:48 PM
It is a shame that this was caused by a careless camper, but all of us that live in the west amongst the forest we love, know that it is only a matter fo time untill a fire happens.
The real shame is that more fires were not allowed to burn under moister, cooler conditions in the past. This would have broken up the landscape with a patchwork of seral stages that would have reponded less severly during this fire.
I have spent a lot of time in other areas that had "severe", "devastating" fires, or have been "destroyed" by wildfires, but I have seen that they will return. It will not be the same for a very long time if ever, but nothing is. If you are over 40, I bet the town you grew up isn't the same as when you were a kid either. Not neccesarily better or worse, but mostly just different.
Hopefully now, a program of prescribed fire can be implemented in this area with minimal risk to the homes that are encrouching and keep these forest more fire friendly.
San Francisco Peaks fire
river girl
river girl
Jul 02, 2010 04:26 PM
Please remember that this particular geographic feature--the San Francisco Peaks--is considered a "sky island", surrounded by the high desert with appx. 20" of precip in a normal year, normal being redefined by climate change. It takes so much longer for forests to regenerate than in the Pacific NW, or even Colorado or matter what the circumstances,this was an unnecessary fire started by carelessness. You can argue natural wildfire till forever, but the point is that it didn't need to happen this way. Forty percent of the soil has been rendered sterile because the fire was so hot, meeaning it will take hundreds of years for the soil to break down enough to support seed growth. Prescribed fire is necessary and required; negligence can't be waved away with the apples and oranges fallacy that a few of you seem to be trying to argue.
Peaks Fire
Larry Thornton
Larry Thornton
Jul 03, 2010 04:38 PM
As I stated earlier, it is unfortunate that this was started by the camper. Regardless the cause this would have happened, sooner than later. There was 100 years of accumulated fuels with no safe way to get rid of it. Now that it has been removed, we need to make sure it stays this way. I can take you to areas in the peaks that are beautiful alpine meadows. Many are the result of the fires impacts on the soils many years ago, just as you describe.
This fire had "severe" fire over about 40%, but the sterilized, hydrophobic soils will be only a tiny fraction of that. Sterile soils means that the seed in the soil were killed, it doesn't mean that seeds won't grow there. Most hydrophobic soils will accept water within a year, with 5 years being a rare long term condition.
We will all have a better feel for the impacts after the BAER plan is completed. Keep an eye out at;[…]/index.shtml
Close the Forest!
Fareed Abou-Haidar
Fareed Abou-Haidar
Jul 05, 2010 05:51 PM
We seem to be losing major chunks of one major mountain in Arizona per year: Mogollon Rim, McDowells, Mazatzals, Catalinas (Mount Lemmon), Mount Graham, the Santa Ritas (Wrightson), the Chiricahuas, Four Peaks, Kendrick Peak... Not to mention vast areas of the Sonoran Desert that is not adapted to fires, and the monster Rodeo-Chedeski and CCC fires. And now, the San Francisco Peaks!

The FS has closed the forests in past years due to fire danger. I don't know why they didn't this year. It's not enough to tell people not to light campfires in June; there will always be a minority of idiots. The only way to prevent human-caused fires so is to simply close down the forests to vehicles and to dispersed camping between, say, the end of May and the arrival of the monsoon season. Vehicles could be allowed on major, graded roads for general access to trails, but physically barred (gates) from the network of side roads where most dispersed camping takes places, and where hot contact between vehicles and dried grass is more likely.

Fire may be natural to the pine forest, but due to past mismanagement, this is not a natural situation. And we are losing forests faster than they can regenerate. Routine forest closures in June would be a small price to pay to ensure the future. Look at the alternative! Dispersed camping and campfires are the deep-sea drilling catastrophe of Arizona.

Jul 10, 2010 12:25 PM
The FS has closed the forest in past years but it took an act of Congress for them to do it. They claimed "they were montering it closely" Due to being public lands & costs involved they did not & would not take measures to protect the forest from catastrophic wildfire due to some tourist dollars? Think of the lost tourist $ when it is charred... This past winter had heavy moisture after years of drought although the Mt Elden Fire in 77 was a year of heavy snow so wake up COCO FS! You are very right in your points that the forest fire restrictions should go in place in June, allowing camping in established areas only. Also, Flag has a large amount of transients off I40 & 17, homeless that come up out of the desert to escape the heat & so many fires are started by abandoned campfires. I agree, this lack of proactive management is the BP of N. AZ. This fire is a tradgedy & is heartbreaking to all of us who love the area & this sacred mountain...
Coco Fire restrictions- too little, way too late!
Jul 10, 2010 12:02 PM
As a previous resident of Timberline for 23 years, we battled with FS officials for increased fire restrictions over the past decade. I am infuriated that this fire could have been prevented with proactive management of this area. We addressed this multiple times with Coconino FS Officials, primarily due to increased impact in the Schultz Pass area, along with high winds and dry conditions, more proactive campfire restrictions needed to be implemented. Why allow random campfires at all in this very vunerable area? Cannot tell you how many times over the years i came across smoldering abandoned campires. & fire rings that were in close proximity to other fire rings. Many of us knew the potential of a catastrophic wild fire as this area which has been primed for years as a tinderbox & it would be our worst nightmare. In the 80’s, a majority of this fire area was logged, which I worked on the crews at the time. There was minimal cleanup as they left all the down & dead debris due to the large number of archeological sites. We were told they would “hand brush pile” which was never done or any fire suppresent management since. So it was left as a haystack waiting for a match to strike. I called FS Officials frequently, we coordinated meetings, we addressed the potential of this disaster and they turned their backs on us. On 7/2/2003, we held emergency meeting due to less that 3 inches of precip that YEAR, with 40+ MPH winds, & one FS Official looked me in the eye & said "you choose to live here so deal with it" They did shut down the forest the next day, but it took a ACT OF CONGRESS!! The local fire captain met with me & said, if a fire EVER gets going on the eastern slope of Schultz Pass, it will be too hazourdous for our crews to fight, & there will be no way to stop it except to set up to defend the homes. So, I was able to get out & moved to Colorado. Although, I am still very connected to this area with many dear friends that were evacutated & now are living with a blackened charred moonscape and fried critters is all that is left. Now, they are dealing with flood warnings with the moonsoon rains. It goes to show the lack of foresight when COCO FS, after the fact, implemented campfire restrictions a few days after this inferno devastated the eastern slope on the Peaks. I mourn the loss of life on the Peaks and that we allowed stupid & careless humans to devastate this pristine beautiful wilderness. GRRRRRRRRR!


Andrew Holycross
Andrew Holycross
Aug 07, 2010 11:14 AM

Restoration of fire to the landscape would have prevented this fire, and so many other catastrophic fires in the southwest. "Dog-hair" thickets and unnaturally dense stands of trees along with droughts allow fires to behave in novel ways. Yes, so-called "stand-replacing" fires are part of Arizona's ecological legacy, but most evidence suggests they weren't the norm across most of our pine woodlands. Restoration of natural stand conditions is necessary for fire to maintain most southwestern pine woodlands.

Solutions are stymied because none of the stakeholders trust each other. Any proposal for thinning that involves commercial interests is suspect to environmentalists; perhaps understandably after a century of FS subsidies, carte blanche operating guidelines, and minimal enforcement. Environmental organizations simply don't trust the FS to faithfully monitor "users" or manage according to the best science available. Ranching interests sometimes favor fires, because they benefit forage production... but ranchers have resisted restrictive ignition parameters for prescribed fires that would have limited the potential for blazes that burned out of control. Commercial users, and perhaps the FS, see environmental organizations as narrow and rigid in their approach, and completely unsympathetic to solutions that might involve "use".

A new model is necessary to develop solutions this intractable problem. That model MUST address the distrust amongst the stakeholders. That model must be invited by management agencies, be developed by the stakeholders themselves, and applied across the National Forest System. The model will not work unless all stakeholders have a seat at the table, and no one group is in a political position to control or subvert the process (this is where the "Malpai Model" failed). Currently, the prevailing perception is that commercial interests have a political advantage in internal dealings with the FS and even USFWS. And environmental organizations have political control in the courts. This scenario results... in many cases, in a cycle of doing nothing. But in this case, doing nothing is doing something... it is facilitating catastrophic fires, no matter how they are ignited. Until a model that addresses the fundamental distrust amongst the parties is developed, we will continue a cycle of "users vs. suers" and our forests lose.