9 months after Bighorn Fire, wilderness trail hazards, closures remain

Arizona Daily Star (April 23, 2021) by Cindy Coffer Chojnacky

Hikers flock to the rugged Santa Catalina mountains north of Tucson, but many trails are still off limits in the wake of last year’s Bighorn Fire.

Most trails remain closed within the burn scar of the 119,987-acre Bighorn Fire, which raged from June 5 through July 23. Some trails are within Pusch Ridge Wilderness on the southwest flank of the mountains, and others are north or east of the wilderness.

The Arizona Trail through the heart of the wilderness was reopened March 2, “just in time for thru-hiking season,” reported the Arizona Trail Association website. Most hike the 800-mile trail from Mexico to Utah in spring or fall.

Nearly two dozen other trails, however, remain closed, though hikers were observed using at least one — Mount Lemmon Trail — on a recent visit.

Many will stay closed through at least Oct. 1, said Santa Catalina District Ranger Charles Woodard.

“After fire, it takes three to five years for an area to stabilize,” he said. “We need to monitor impacts of any heavy rain on the decomposed granitic soils.”

The dry winter with one storm in January and light mountain rain in March helped stabilize trails in the burn, said Gregg Sasek, district dispersed recreation manager. He said heavy winter rains could have made side slope trails such as Green Mountain Trail (contouring on the northeast flank of the mountain) sluff off the side or “blow out the drains” (steep canyons intersecting the trail).
Blackened snags of burned pine and oak continue to dot the hillsides — hazard for hikers and future trail impediments.

“Those snags will be falling for years,” Sasek said. “In 2019, I thought I cut the last snag from the Aspen Fire (of 2003).”

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