We were in Oregon at the beginning of summer 2003 when news of the Aspen Fire burning in the Catalinas and threatening the community of Summerhaven reached us. When we returned to Tucson in April 2004, we decided to take the drive up the Catalina Highway again, to see what kind of changes the fire had made. A sign at the beginning of the highway warned us that there were possible hour-long road delays ahead due to construction.
Driving up through the lowest ecozone of Sonoran desert, the saguaro looked healthy with wildflowers blooming all around them. We really began to notice evidence of wildfire as we climbed up toward Thimble and Seven Cataracts lookouts. Charred and blackened dead oak trees stood with purple flowers and new green growth coloring the earth at their bases. Around the next curve we would find stands that were untouched, emphasizing to us how true it is about how fire hops and skips as it moves along, entirely missing some areas, lightly singeing others, and burning yet others to a crisp.
We got to a stopped line of cars and trucks a short ways past Seven Cataracts. Although the traffic had been light, it didn’t take long for a row of vehicles to form behind us as well. Perhaps because we had no schedules to keep, it seemed like not much time had passed before we began moving. Signs alongside the road told us that no stopping was allowed in the construction area. But we moved so slowly that it was basically stop and go for a while. Major road construction was taking place all along the stretch between Hitchcock Campground and Geology Vista. It’s probable that this road construction project had already been planned prior to the Aspen Fire. I remembered reading that the fire had been hot enough to melt the metal guardrail alongside the highway in some places. But between the fire damage to the landscape and dust, noise, heavy machinery, and torn up pieces of road and rail, it was a memorable if not a pretty scene!
There are few who still argue for total fire suppression. It’s been pretty well proven that this policy does more long-term harm than immediate good. As a girl growing up in the ‘50s with loveable Smokey the Bear pointing his finger at me, it took some mental acrobatics to rid myself of the “all forest fires are bad” mindset. But at this point in my mental evolution, I’m fairly convinced that most fires, be they “natural” or caused by people’s carelessness, have a cleaning and re-birthing effect on the ecology. The problem is when fires and man-made structures and communities collide. This is what happened at Summerhaven, and there is no doubt that there was loss and suffering there, lots of courage, perhaps some mistakes, and that healing is needed and already taking place…