How fire heroes saved Lost Dutchman Park The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

How fire heroes saved Lost Dutchman Park

How fire heroes saved Lost Dutchman Park

By Jim Walsh
Tribune Staff Writer

First Water glistened in the spring, its towering green saguaros and palo verdes showing off the Sonoran Desert’s surprisingly verdant terrain and showcasing the Superstition Mountains.

But that postcard-worthy scene is now a bittersweet memory, the same desert landscape charred and singed by the Superstition Fire – one of four that have claimed nearly 160,000 acres of mostly pristine desert in the Superstitions the past two years.

The Superstition Fire started Aug. 20, burning through 9,539 acres before it was brought under control Sept. 23 after torching the top of Superstition Mountain near Flat Iron, a steep but panoramic area.

The scars around First Water will linger for decades in the fragile desert ecosystem, where it can take 100 or more years for saguaros to grow tall.

Now, all that awaits many of the once imposing saguaros is decay. They are either charred or turning an unnatural shade of brown, burned at the base and ready to topple with a good blast of wind.

But in the wildfire that torched the region, First Water died nobly as firefighters served heroically. Firefighters made their stand there, saving popular Lost Dutchman State Park to the south and preventing the inferno from marching north toward scenic Canyon Lake.

A bumpy dirt road gave them a critical fire break to halt the wildfire’s hellish onslaught.

Firefighters used torches to set some vegetation ablaze, robbing the advancing fire of the non-native grasses that had made the area lush in spring but fed the inferno in summer.

Planes dumped fire retardant while firefighters sprayed water from brush trucks in triple-digit heat.

The evidence of their labors is obvious to any visitor: to the south lies an ugly burn scar, to the north, lush pristine desert.

“That was the place that was going to give us the highest probability for success,’’ said Incident Commander John Pierson of the U.S Forest Service.

The top priorities were protecting lives, especially those of firefighters on scene as well as Lost Dutchman State Park and even Apache Junction, he said.

If the three-or four-day assault on the fire at First Water had failed, the next best option would have been the Apache Trail, where the impact would have been much worse, Pierson said.

“It’s a very flashy fire system, where fires will get very large, very quickly,’’ Pierson said. “We did a lot of effort to protect the natural and cultural resources.’’

Apache Junction Fire Chief Mike Farber considers the response a great success overall.

But he is saddened by the loss of pristine desert as he drives past the Lost Dutchman Fire site along Apache Trail and on the First Water road past the charred terrain.

“It’s a beautiful area of pristine desert. It was there when I was a kid. Now, it’s gone for my lifetime,’’ he said. “This is something that took hundreds of years (to grow). It’s going to be lifetime, if ever, to be restored.’’

But Farber also shudders over what might have happened if the First Water fire line had not held.

Lost Dutchman State Park, a popular destination, might have been lost forever. The fire could have raced north up Apache Trail, consuming thousands of acres as it headed toward Canyon Lake.

“It was a lot more saved than lost,’’ he said. “Overall, I think limiting the damage was a phenomenal success, but any acreage lost is too much.’’

Firefighters say the area had been primed for devastating fires by higher-than-usual rains that supported the growth of non-native grasses during the winter, providing fuel for spring and summer blazes to travel and grow.

High winds, triple-digit temperatures and a dry monsoon season combined to create an environment ripe for fire.

“This is what we are seeing throughout the West,’’ Pierson said. “I don’t know that we will see any relief in the future.’

The ominous pattern includes the following fires that have burned through the Superstitions.

Besides the Aug. 20 Superstition Fire, there also was:

  The Woodbury Fire: The largest of all the fires, the fire started near the Woodbury Trailhead in June 2019, in the northeast section of the Superstitions, about five miles northwest of Superior. The fire consumed 123,875 acres by the time it was 100 percent under control in August. The terrain was too rugged and too dangerous for firefighters on foot, making an aerial assault the only safe option.

  The Sawtooth Fire: Caused by lightning, it started two miles northeast of the Peralta Canyon Trailhead last May 30 and burned 24,779 acres.

  The Lost Dutchman Fire started May 7 west of the Apache Trail, south of Lost Dutchman State Park. It burned 221 acres of mostly pristine desert.

“The last two years have been horrible with the wildfires. It took out a massive part of the interior of the Superstitions,’’ said Jodi Akers, an Apache Junction business woman who operates Mother Lode Mercantile in Goldfield Ghost Town and lectures about the Apache Trail’s history at the nearby Superstition Mountain Museum.

“We’re horribly sad about what happened. All of those saguaros will take hundreds of years to regrow,’’ she said.

Apache Junction Mayor Jeff Serdy said the area has been reeling from the series of fires. They also washed out the Apache Trail near Fish Creek and made it impossible to drive to Roosevelt Lake, removing access to an important tourist attraction.

“We hadn’t recovered from last year and we got hit again,’’ Serdy said.

“Some experts say it needed to burn, but I don’t buy that. I think it will be 30-40 years before it looks like our Superstitions again.’’

Kim Grady, a board member of Friends of Lost Dutchman’s State Park, said she was startled and frightened as she watched the fire from her home.

“It was coming down Flat Iron. There were fire bombs coming down there. It was scary,’’ she said.

Although the fire burned out before it reached the lower terrain of Lost Dutchman State Park and no houses were damaged, “to see the fire come down the hill was just unbelievable,’’ Grady said. “I don’t want to go through another summer like it.’’

Amy Schnoes, Lost Dutchman State Park’s manager, said the fire burned about the top a quarter to a third of the mountain. She said it came within a half mile of the park’s boundaries.

“We didn’t have any direct damage at all. We did have to close the park for four days,’’ she said. “We were very lucky we had the resources in the area we did. We have fire crews that are very experienced with the topography.’’

The series of fires leaves behind a patchwork of pristine areas that were saved by firefighters.

They include Lost Dutchman and Peralta Canyon, which hosts one of the area’s most beautiful hikes. The fires have left ugly burn scars in some remote areas east of Peralta and north of iconic Weaver’s Needle.

The Tonto National Forest reopened the trails after concluding that the increased risk of flooding is not high enough to justify leaving them closed.

Still, East Valley hikers tired of being cooped-up during the COVID-19 pandemic and anxious to head out for some exercise are advised to use additional caution amid hazards worsened by the fire.

“We’re very fortunate that our highest use trails were less impacted,’’ said Matthew Quinn, trails manager for the Tonto National Forest.

“When they go out this year, they will see a difference. There’s going to be a loss of vegetation from what people remember in previous years. There might be a lot of open space,’’ Quinn said.

He said the missing vegetation creates a temptation for some hikers to go off trail, further damaging the ecosystem at the worst time since the ground is likely to be looser and less stable.

The damage only increases the need for hikers to stay on the trails and wear appropriate footwear with good traction, Quinn said.

“You might find a lot of deadfall that wasn’t there before,’’ including various types of cactus and other plants that hikers will need to step over, Quinn said. “It will definitely have an impact on trail conditions.’’

Volunteer trail stewards will likely assist hikers at the busier trailheads in the Tonto National Forest and will issue warnings about any additional hazards they may encounter, he said.

“I think anytime you have an event like this, it changes what we see as humans. Our life span is a speck compared to our natural resources,’’ Pierson said.

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