Marshall Gulch Trail After the Bighorn Fire
On Monday this week (Martin Luther King Jr Day) I drove up the mountain and hiked the Marshall Gulch trail, one of the most popular trails on Mt. Lemmon. I try to hike this trail once every season but I hadn't been on this trail since January 2020. When Covid-19 shut everything down in March I stayed home and away from the trails.
I also hadn't been on this trail since the devastating Bighorn Fire burned almost 200,000 acres of the Santa Catalina Mountains. It was started by a lightning strike on June 5, 2020 near Bighorn Mountain (hence the name) and burned until July 23, 2020. Due to an almost non-existent monsoon season and extremely dry conditions the wildfire spread quickly from one side of the Catalinas to the other. It was gut wrenching to see the entire mountain up in flames and see billows of smoke from my backyard.
All of the hiking trails in the "burn scar" were closed for safety reasons. After a wildfire comes through there are precautions that must be made and trail crews need to assess conditions. Downed trees, unstable ground, loose rocks, hydrophobic soil, and loss of vegetation can cause trails to be unsafe and need to be maintained or rerouted or just closed until a crew can get in there. In December some of the trails were reopened and deemed safe to hike, one being the Marshall Gulch Trail. For an up to date listing of open and safe trail conditions please visit the Coronado National Forest website.
When the fire was actively burning the team in charge of incident command gave nightly Q&A sessions on Facebook, helping communicate what crews were seeing and what they were doing to try to suppress the fire. The information they shared was so helpful in understanding how wildfires move and the best ways to "move" the fire away from homes and buildings. (Note: I am not a professional wildland firefighter and I don't have any training in wildfire management, the information in this post is based on what I have learned from friends who do this for a living and from the professionals who shared this information with the community.)
Although I do have a story about coming across a burning snag while on a hike in the Santa Ritas with a friend and we helped put out what could have potentially started a wildfire, but that's a story for another time...
Wildfires follow the path of least resistance. In the Catalinas that meant the fire stayed in the understory/close to the ground burning up grass, bushes, fallen pine needles, quick fuels that allow it to spread faster. Sometimes this meant that a tree would catch fire but mostly it meant that the fire would move to the next quick source. The last big wildfire in 2003 (Aspen Fire) burned almost 85,000 acres and before then the mountain range hadn't seen such a big wildfire meaning there was plenty of fuel to keep the Bighorn Fire burning for weeks. It also doesn't help that the Catalinas have some rugged canyons and the fire was burning in areas that were just not safe to put a fire crew and the only option was to just let it burn. The safety of fire crews is still #1.
Thankfully with the Bighorn Fire we saw minimal crown fire (when the whole tree including the crown or top of the tree is engulfed in flames) however there were still some instances of entire pine trees burning. On my hike there were many, many trees that were now just charred sticks. These dead/burned trees are called "snags" and after the fire is gone they pose another danger: falling.
Several times on my hike I'd hear a creak and look up to see a dead tree swaying in the breeze. The right breeze and that tree will come crashing down.
Often trail crews will cut down these snags to eliminate danger but it should be noted that there is always a chance they can fall when you're out hiking. They may fall this week or they may fall years from now. It's important to always be aware of these dangers but especially when planning to hike in areas that have been burned. There are trees from the 2003 Aspen Fire that are still falling 18 years later.
On my hike there was one spot where a large tree had fallen over and is now blocking the trail. To get around it you have to climb up and around the charred stump.
I have another story of hiking Butterfly Trail with a friend and we heard that familiar creaking sound and turned around to see a big tree falling 50 yards behind us! Thankfully we were safe.
There were also a lot of what I call "toasted" trees where the intense heat from the wildfire got to them instead of the flames. Driving up Catalina Highway you will see a lot of these trees too. Sometimes half of a pine tree will be green and the other half is brown. I'm not sure if these trees will come back or if they will eventually die.
I still saw some wildlife: birds, squirrels and a deer bounded across the trail. The mountain is usually quieter in the wintertime so I was glad to see some activity.
The best description I heard of the fire is that it burned like a mosaic, it didn't burn down every single thing in the burned area. It was interesting on my hike to see where the fire decided to go, down this gully, around that tree. It would burn an entire side of a hill and then skip another portion, leaving it untouched. In the below picture you can see how the fire burned just half of the tree, leaving the other half completely fine. And since the fire burned in the understory, the lower branches on many trees were burned but the top half of the tree looks normal.
The burn scar will be here for a long time. The trails I've hiked through the Aspen Fire burn scar still look sad with burned tree stumps and tooth pick trees, but they also show the regrowth that will happen. New trees will grow, more plants will pop up. Those small ponderosa pine trees will grow tall again, it just takes time.
Ultimately I've learned wildfire is GOOD for the health of a mountain and forest. Wildfire management was practiced by the communities that called this mountain home centuries ago. Unfortunately, the last couple hundred years we have viewed wildfires as something that should be 100% suppressed instead of something that should be allowed to burn for the health of the mountain.
The normal wildfire season is from August-November but each year we're seeing it start earlier, be more catastrophic, and end later. 2018, 2019, and 2020 were all deemed the worst wildfire season and 2021 doesn't look much better after the dry winter we've been experiencing. Just another reason we need to be fighting to reverse climate change.
If you're looking to learn more about wildfires I'd recommend the REI podcast "Wildfire". As someone who grew up in the Midwest and didn't think much about wildfires until moving out West, I've been fascinated by them.
If you're planning to see the burn scar for yourself, please be careful and take precaution. Make sure you have your 10 Essentials (and a mask, we're still in a pandemic and I saw a lot of people on the trail) and be prepared to turn back early if the trail is unsafe. Don't push yourself if you don't have to.
Here's hoping that 2021 brings new growth to the Catalinas and allows for healing from last year's traumas, in more ways than one.
Marshall Gulch Trail #3
Date hiked: January 18, 2021
Total miles: 3.4 miles out & back (plus another 1 mile walking the road since the road gate is closed and you cannot park at the trailhead)
Elevation gain: 500 feet
Total time: 2.5 hours
Land acknowledgement: Ancestral lands of the Tohono O'odham and Yaqui
I have seen many, many pictures that were taken after the Aspen Fire that should numerous young pines sprouting. By 2020 some were over five feet tall. Did you see where any of those young trees survived on your hike?
I hope to visit the area in March.