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2:08 PM Thu, Sept. 20th

2013 Top Stories #3: The Doce Fire - Human-caused blaze torches Granite Mountain

Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier, file<br>
A DC-10 heavy air tanker drops retardent along the  eastern side of Granite Mountain near American Ranch on June 18 as the Doce Fire burns its way down Granite Mountain.

Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier, file<br> A DC-10 heavy air tanker drops retardent along the eastern side of Granite Mountain near American Ranch on June 18 as the Doce Fire burns its way down Granite Mountain.

Demonstrating how resilient nature can be, the flora and fauna of the Granite Mountain Wilderness Area is recovering from the Doce Fire that torched through two-thirds of the rugged wilderness area in June.

But it will be a long process.

"It was a hot, fast burn, and I wish it hadn't happened, but it will heal itself over time," Prescott National Forest Wilderness and Trails Manager Jason Williams said.

Prescott National Forest Biologist Noel Fletcher set up an automatic camera at a watering hole in the wilderness for a few months after the fire, then posted a presentation about it on the forest's website at fs.usda.gov/prescott.

"I wanted to focus on the recovery," she said.

The camera captured all kinds of animals drinking from the spring including a bear cub, coyote, mountain lion, deer, rabbit and raccoon. A javelina was caught wallowing in the mud, while the trail camera also captured an image of an owl swooping down to grab something out of the water with its talons.

"I was excited to see these animals there," especially the barn owl, she said.

But she wasn't surprised.

"I just wanted to show people they were in there" and survived the fire, she explained, especially since few people bushwhack on the rugged mountain.

The website presentation also features landscape photos showing how vegetation is recovering, too. Vegetation surrounding the spring was returning within a month, while burned vegetation such as a prickly pear still provided shade for newly sprouting plants.

The blaze ignited June 18 just south of Iron Springs Road and west of Prescott. Investigators haven't released any information about the cause except that humans started it in the vicinity of the Doce Pit.

The 9,799-acre wilderness area took the brunt of the 6,767-acre fire as firefighters somehow steered it away from homes in the Williamson Valley area after about 460 homes were evacuated there. About 20 homes in the Granite Basin area already were evacuated.

Tony Sciacca, the Type I incident commander on the fire and a retired fire management officer on the Forest Service district that includes the wilderness area, was shocked at how fast the blaze ran down the northeast side of Granite Mountain toward homes. It grew to 5,000 acres in the first seven hours after it ignited.

Members of a new local Type III team already had built an incident action plan, and that really sped up the transition to the Type I team on the second day, Sciacca said. Instead of taking 1-2 days for the transition, it took just 12 hours.

"That was way huge" in getting more resources mobilized quickly to save homes, he said.

Strong air support for hundreds of firefighters was huge, too. Structures clearly were in danger of burning when flames hit backyards, and that gave the Doce top priority for national resources because other major fires weren't in that situation at that moment.

Ancient trees that watched over technical climbers on a popular Granite Mountain cliff face were among those that succumbed to the flames, however.

Just days before 19 of the Granite Mountain Hotshots perished in the Yarnell Hill wildfire, the hotshot crew saved a record-sized alligator juniper from the Doce Fire flames by clearing vegetation around it and cutting a fire line. The 14-foot-diameter tree is a co-champion on American Forests' Register of Big Trees for the largest alligator juniper in the country, alongside another juniper on the Prescott National Forest.

Hotshot Superintendent Eric Marsh described how it was great to know they saved a tree on their namesake mountain.

"It feels right, you know?" he said.

The fire had the same name as the 850-acre Doce Fire that ignited in the same vicinity on June 14, 1990. It's been that long since much of the thick chaparral on Granite Mountain burned.

Fire and related brush clearing sometimes turn up surprising things on the landscape.

During brush-clearing work near the fire line, the Flagstaff Hotshots discovered a medicine bottle that dates back somewhere between the late 1860s to the 1880s, Prescott National Forest Archaeologist Jim McKie said.

It once held Dr. Thompson's sarsaparilla, one of the many patent medicines available at the time.

The bottle was in perfect condition near an historic wagon road.

"It's probably been sitting in that spot for 130 years," McKie said. "It's definitely not something you find routinely. But some of our major archaeological finds end up happening that way.

"Archaeologists working alongside firefighters help protect and preserve both large and small pieces of our history," he added. "In this case, the discovery of an historic bottle is but a small piece, but this small item is actually part of a larger picture of the history of Yavapai County.

"So even such small finds as this can provide us with information and can lead us into asking more focused questions about our historical past."

Follow Joanna Dodder on Twitter: @joannadodder.