Originally Published: June 18, 2018 6:06 a.m.
Granite Mountain has come a long way in the past five years.
Long gone are the sooty rocks and charred log waterbars that were left behind by 2013’s Doce Fire.
But that doesn’t mean the massive Granite Mountain Wilderness Area has fully recovered from the wildfire that raged for weeks on the rugged forestland west of Prescott.
At virtually every turn in the wilderness area today, skeletal remains of burned junipers and pinon trees are visible among the granite rock formations.
“I’m getting used to it as it is; it’s the new normal,” Jason Williams, trails and wilderness manager for the Prescott National Forest, said recently. Still, he said, “We won’t have all of the pinon back.”
In the months after the fire, Forest Service workers fanned out in the steep terrain to take on the labor-intensive task of restoration.
The wilderness area was closed immediately after the fire, through the end of September 2013, but the restoration work would continue for months after that.
“The main 261 trail (Granite Mountain summit trail), I feel OK about,” Williams said. “That took about two years. Things are stable, and it’s doing alright.”Throughout the wilderness, including Little Granite Mountain and the Upper and Lower Pasture Loops, the trails required extensive work to remove burned log water-bars and the rebar that had kept the logs in place.
“Many (of the logs) burned, leaving the rebar,” Williams said, noting that in some cases, about a foot of jagged rebar was left sticking out aboveground, while the remaining two feet were underground. “The trail-crew folks at the time spent a month pulling rebar at trails 38, 39, and 40,” Williams said.
Much of the restoration also focused on preventing soil from washing away in the absence of the vegetation destroyed by the fire.
In related work, a crew from the Flagstaff-based American Conservation Experience (ACE) spent 48 days between December 2013 and April 2014 reestablishing and reconfiguring about 9 miles the Tin Trough Trail, located in and near the path of the Doce Fire.
A primary goal was to mitigate erosion, according to a report on ACE’s project.
“The priority is getting the drainage in to prevent more soil erosion,” Williams said, noting that the trails typically are not high-priority infrastructure in the forest.
The City of Prescott will offer tribute to the fallen Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew on Saturday, June 30. The event will take place on a stage located at the intersection of Goodwin and Montezuma streets.
It was five years ago today, June 18, that the Doce Fire sprang from a human-caused spark just south of Iron Springs Road in the Doce Pit area. Before it was declared fully contained in early July, the Doce Fire had consumed 6,767 acres — much of it in the Granite Mountain Wilderness area. Along the way, the fire led to the evacuation of 480 homes in the Granite Basin and Williamson Valley areas, as well as the more than 100 horses.
Within a day of the fire’s start, a top-level, Type I Incident Command effort was on-site, directing its operations from the grounds of Prescott High School. Ultimately, firefighters were able to save all of the homes.
During the fire, Bill Morse, public information officer for the Doce fire, predicted the recovery of the wilderness area would be a long-term process.
“When you get a fire this hot, it breaks down the soil,” Morse said. “It takes time to rejuvenate. It could be years.”
Fighting the Doce Fire was complicated by 2013’s dry conditions and high winds. “This is a perfect mix of fuel, wind, and topography,” Morse said at the time, noting that unlike ponderosa-pine forests, where thinning out trees can help to limit forest-fire potential, “It’s an almost impossible task to thin this brush.”
This week, Debbie Maneely, public affairs officer with the Prescott National Forest, reported that the department’s law enforcement never released any details on the cause of the fire, except that it was “human caused.”
During its peak, the Doce Fire was being called Arizona’s largest fire incident to date in 2013, but within days, the Yarnell Hill Fire would eclipse it — both in acreage burned and in the human toll, after 19 of Prescott’s Granite Mountain Hotshots died fighting that fire.
The Hotshots are forever linked to the Doce Fire as well, because of the crew’s high-profile efforts to save a champion alligator juniper tree that stood in the Doce’s path. A plaque that was constructed at the juniper tree in 2014 states:
“They cleared brush, dug fire line, and burned the fuels around this alligator juniper before the main fire could destroy it. Upon their return after the fire had passed, this giant was standing amongst the scorched landscape.”
Today, the tree has become a destination for residents wanting to pay their respects to the Hotshots’ effort. At the base of the tree, collections of rocks have been arranged in the shape of hearts, and of the number 19.
Noting that the route to the tree can be confusing for some hikers, Williams said the Forest Service plans to install temporary signs that will point the way. A new trail that would provide a more direct route to the tree is also under consideration.
Meanwhile, Williams urges those who find their way to the tree from the nearby Contreras Ranch Road trailhead to refrain from leaving mementos there.
“The memorabilia is going to become a problem,” he said, noting that people have hung ornaments and scarves from the branches of the tree.
“We would much prefer that people don’t leave anything there, and leave it as they saw it,” Williams said.
Years earlier, the tree had been designated as a champion juniper through the Arizona State Forestry Division’s Magnificent Trees program, which deemed it one of the largest of its kind in the state — at 53 feet high, 31 feet in circumference, and 77 feet crown span.
Follow Cindy Barks on Twitter @Cindy_Barks. Reach her at 928-445-3333, ext. 2034, or email@example.com.