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Friday, March 27, 2009

BARNHARDT REVISITED

When the wonderfully thick pine-fir woodlands of Barnhardt Canyon went up in flames, the devastation was already a few hundred years overdue. Yet, the fact that naturally-occurring forest fires are as inevitable as they are necessary for forest health, did little to keep my heart from aching that summer in 2005 when I kept watch on the plumes of smoke over the Mazatzal Mountains from my Scottsdale office as they made an agonizingly slow beeline toward Barnhardt Canyon. Fires of this nature happen every few hundred years, and it has been estimated that more than 500 years had passed since Barnhardt Canyon last took the heat. The day the fire swept up the canyon, the abundant fuels sent billowy white towers of smoke higher than on any other day of the month-long blaze. Mental images of smoldering trees and eroding slopes haunted me for days. In March of the following year, we decided to hike the Barnhardt trail to see the damage for ourselves. The drive in to the trailhead showed minimal fire damage and the parking area was completely intact---surrounded by healthy junipers and scrub oaks. A collective sigh and an “it’s not so bad afterall” attitude stayed with us for less than a mile of hiking. Fire is arbitrary in its path and fickle in choosing victims. The pattern of destruction in the canyon seems to make little sense. In places, acres of 100-foot-tall black matchsticks clung to the ravines, still smelling of smoke while random patches of oaks stood untouched. One striking sight was a lone agave—the sole survivor living in an alcove of soot and ash. Gone was the majestic grove of Ponderosa pines that shaded a stony side canyon where snowmelt tumbled downhill. The oak and manzanita hedges that lined a section of trail over a 1,000-foot drop off—gone. It seemed that the damage increased with the elevation. Our normally gregarious hiking group went silent when we rounded the bend past the upper falls. Here, the damage was absolute. Where a sea of manzanitas and scrub oaks had once dominated the landscape there was now nothing but dirt and ash. Save for the blackened remains of an old wooden junction sign placed on a charred tree stump, our beloved trail had been obliterated. Since the fire, we’ve been going back to Barnhardt every year. The trail has been restored and many of the burnt trees have toppled to the ground and are rapidly turning to dust. Vegetation is coming back strong, and this year, we even had a nice showing of wildflowers. With many of the trees gone, views of the areas complex geology have opened up and the trail has taken on a new flavor. Although it will be hundreds of years before the forests regenerate, the signs of recovery are encouraging. Until then, random, fickle things, like the sprouts that emerged from the lone survivor agave this spring, keep us entertained. Happy trails, Mare SEE MY 2010 ENTRY FOR A VIDEO OF THE UPPER WATERFALL. See prior entry for trail information.

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