Burned forest in the Chiricahua Mtns.

Chiricahuas Revisited

The Chiricahua Mountains are one of the largest of the “Sky Island” ranges that separate the Sierra Madre of Mexico from the Rocky Mountains of the US and Canada.  It is a rich, convoluted mountain range, and like most of the adjacent ranges, high in plant and animal diversity.  These ranges are subject to frequent wildfires, and many of their trees are fire adapted (are not heat-sensitive or will resprout after burning).  However, the high altitude pine-fir forests, Rocky Mountain remnants left over from the Pleistocene, are more sensitive to fire.

The Chiricahuas experienced a large wildfire in 1994 (the Rattlesnake fire).  I started visiting the Chiricahuas in 1996, spending time camping at the uppermost campground (Rustler’s Park), which was in a dense pine-fir forest that  provided a nice summertime retreat from the blazing temperatures in the desert below.  One didn’t have to hike far from the campground, though, to see the effects of the Rattlesnake fire.  Entire slopes of tree skeletons, stark reminders of the ferocity of the blaze.

In 2011, The Horseshoe 2 fire burned some of the areas already burned by the Rattlesnake fire, effortlessly consuming the dead trees.  This fire burned further north, burning through Rustler’s Park, taking out the Barfoot Lookout, and even moving into Chiricahua National Monument.

Rustler's Park campground in the Chiricahua Mountains, 1 year after the Horseshoe 2 wildfire.

Rustler’s Park campground in the Chiricahua Mountains, 1 year after the Horseshoe 2 wildfire.

The campground remained closed for several years, but finally the US Forest Service cleared the trees and added ramadas to each campsite.  Too bad they didn’t add nice tent pads and a good water system while they were at it.

Rustler's Park campground, June 2016.

Rustler’s Park campground, June 2016.

Like most wildfires, the Horseshoe 2 fire was patchy, scorching some areas, while barely touching others.

View from Barfoot Lookout, looking over Barfoot Park. Shows the patchy nature of the Horseshoe 2 wildfire.

View from Barfoot Lookout, looking over Barfoot Park. Shows the patchy nature of the Horseshoe 2 wildfire.

Some areas that had been severely burned  by the Rattlesnake fire suffered a real scorching from the Horseshoe 2 fire, and may never return to forest cover.

A once-forested slope along the crest trail. After two large wildfires in 20 years, it will take a long, long time for the forest to return.

A once-forested slope along the crest trail. After two large wildfires in 20 years, it will take a long, long time for the forest to return.

But in many places, the aspen and oak are rapidly gaining ground, and a flush of herbaceous vegetation increases the overall biodiversity of both plants and animals, especially insects.

I’ve been trying to get back to the Chiricahuas at least once a year, to watch the progress of recovery after the fire, to see where the vegetation was able to come back, and where it wasn’t.  I also like to record the sounds of the area, to see how the birds and other wildlife are responding to the changes in vegetation.  I visited in mid-June of this year, and was pleasantly surprised to have the campground all to myself.  People drove through each day, but no one wanted to camp there anymore.

It was breezy when I was there – it seems like this whole spring and early summer has been breezy.  I set up camp in a site close to the patch of live Ponderosa Pines.   Wildlife was abundant and visible – I saw deer, turkeys, squirrels, golden eagles, white-tailed hawks, and a black bear all from camp.   With fewer people in the area, wildlife are moving back in.

A bear grazes in a forest opening near camp. Chiricahua Mountains, 2016.

A bear grazes in a forest opening near camp. Chiricahua Mountains, 2016.

The sound of the breeze through the tree tops provided a nice accompaniment for the crickets and whippoorwills after the sun went down.  Both of these recordings are better through headphones.

And even though the breeze picked up before dawn, it didn’t deter the birds:

The second day there, the dog and I hiked to the top of Chiricahua Peak.  Just shy of the top of the peak, Shadow woke up a bear that had been sleeping next to the trail.  Luckily the bear didn’t wake up grumpy, and moved aside to let us up the trail.  Before the Horseshoe 2 fire, this section of trail was lined with tall aspens that were covered with a wonderful array of bear scratches – bear art.  The large aspens were mostly killed by the fire, so the bears will have to wait for the aspen sprouts to get a bit bigger before they start marking them up again.

It’s fascinating to see and hear the changes that fire brings to the mountains.  As the climate warms, and forests of the western US dry out, we can expect more large wildfires.  In some places, these will be severe enough to create habitat changes, from forest to scrub or grassland.  We may lose huge tracts of forest throughout the west.  In other areas, fires will just thin the forest, allowing a flush of undergrowth that, at least temporarily, results in a bump in the local biodiversity.  Change can be difficult to accept and hard to plan for.  But nothing stays the same forever.

For more stories and recordings from the Chiricahuas, see:

Turkey Creek

Crazy night in the Chiricahuas

The dynamic dawn chorus

After the fire, the flowers bloom

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