Originally Published: June 26, 2013 6 a.m.
The 9,799-acre Granite Mountain Wilderness Area is a much different place today than just nine days ago.
Most of the wilderness, which was established 29 years ago, has been scorched by the Doce wildfire that ignited June 18. The area is located on the prominent Granite Mountain just west of Prescott.
The Wilderness Act requires Prescott National Forest officials to preserve the "wilderness character" of Granite Mountain, but there's only so much they can do in this situation.
"The character is very different because of the fire in itself," Prescott National Forest Ecologist Max Wahlberg said.
Firefighters and forest officials are starting to analyze the changes, but it will be months before the public is able to hike the landmark mountain again. It's not likely to open to the public until some time after monsoon rains, because of the flooding and rockslide danger.
"It's going to be awhile before we realize what all we lost and saved," Prescott National Forest Wilderness and Trails Manager Jason Williams said.
Prescott College Environmental Studies Professor Doug Hulmes has spent countless days on Granite Mountain and is sad that a careless person changed it so dramatically by igniting the 6,767-acre wildfire. It was 80 percent contained by Tuesday evening and expected to be 100-percent contained today.
"I try to look at it as objectively as ecologists, but I can't," Hulmes said. "The mountain's been part of my life since I was 17... That's one of the most rugged mountains I've ever been to."
Firefighters went out of their way to avoid making more changes to the wilderness than necessary when they battled the blaze.
"There are different concerns in the wilderness," said Eric Marsh, superintendent of the Granite Mountain Hotshots from the Prescott Fire Department. Bulldozers did not enter the wilderness, and firefighters tried to reduce the impact of hand-dug lines by using trails for lines when possible. Firefighters also minimized their use of chainsaws.
They even decided to cancel two planned burnouts, partly to protect the remaining vegetation.
The main trail up the mountain is going to be wider for a while since it was used as a fire line, but that helped save the Granite Basin Recreation Area from burning, Williams said.
The Prescott Hotshots from the Prescott National Forest saved an ancient rock art panel from fire damage by clearing out brush around it, and cleaned retardant off another panel, Williams said.
Monsoon rains will help fade the red slurry off other parts of the mountain, "but it's a visual thing we're going to have to live with for five or 10 years," Williams said.
The rugged, boulder-strewn mountain lost many of its pine, fir, aspen, piñon and juniper trees, but the Granite Mountain Hotshots appropriately were the ones to save one special tree.
It's a 14-foot-diameter alligator juniper that is more than 25 feet in circumference, more than 50 feet tall and at least 70 feet across. Alligator juniper is the longest-living tree species on this forest. While alligators are hard to date, it could be 1,000 years old, Williams said.
Its size makes it a co-champion on American Forests' National Register of Big Trees for the largest alligator juniper in the country, alongside another juniper on the Prescott National Forest.
"It really was cool to save it," Williams said, especially since the forest has lost dozens of ancient alligator junipers to illegal poachers in recent years.
Hulmes is among those grateful to the hotshots for saving the stately tree. He too has seen many of its kind cut down illegally for profit. Some could be 2,000 years old, he said.
"That's the kind of loss that isn't quantified with money," he said.
When Williams told the hotshots about the tree and asked them to save it, they headed up the mountain and cut out thick brush at the base of the co-champion alligator juniper and cut a fire line around it.
The hotshots checked on the tree Monday when they were in the vicinity, and saw that the fire had burned right up to that line.
The hotshots' work in the backcountry on fires often goes unseen, Marsh said. So it's great to know they might have saved such a prominent tree that people cared about. And it's great to know they saved a tree on their namesake mountain.
"It feels right, you know?" he said.
He remembers tracing the mountain's shadow on paper to create the hotshots' logo for their helmets.
"I did make a joke about how I didn't have a map the first day and I used my hat for a map," Marsh said.
"It's kind of bittersweet," Marsh said of the wildfire, because the hotshots often hike up their namesake mountain during workouts since it's so close to the city. That proximity is a major reason why it's the most popular wilderness on the Prescott National Forest.
Wahlberg has seen pines in a basin on top of Granite Mountain that survived the blaze, too, albeit scorched.
But several other trees that are special to the rock climbing community may not have made it.
"The rock quality up at Granite Mountain is comparable to Yosemite," Williams noted, so that rock climbing community is nationwide.
A lone shady pine tree for which Pine Tree Ledge is named, and a gnarly old juniper above it, appeared to be blackened when he looked at them with binoculars, Williams said. He hopes to hike up there this week to take a closer look.
Climbers have to climb through the huge juniper to get down the cliff face, Williams said.
"I've climbed it in the moonlight and had ringtail cats looking down at me from that tree," he said.
A prominent piñon on a flat ledge named the Front Porch below the climbing face might have survived, Williams said.
Peregrine falcons nesting on the cliff face already fledged so they should have survived the fire, too, Prescott National Forest Wildlife Biologist Noel Fletcher said. The cliff face is closed to climbing during the nesting season.
Wahlberg saw lizards and a rabbit that died in the flames, but he also saw fresh bear scat. And Williams saw a lot of deer.
"It was a hot, fast burn, and I wish it hadn't happened, but it will heal itself over time," Williams said.
But many other special places remain increasingly susceptible to man-caused wildfires.
"It's just a matter of time for a lot of country around here," Marsh observed.
Some trees are dying not from fire, but from the 15-year drought that shows no sign of letting up. And temperatures are on the rise.
"There is a very real impact from climate change that we're already seeing," Wahlberg said.