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 Unfortunately, there's an outdated, romantic practice that the uninitiated cling to, the notion that camping isn't camping without fire, no matter how dry the landscape.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 (hcn.org). She teaches English at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona.