Brins fire torches trails

Oak Creek Canyon, AZ – Driving through Oak Creek Canyon along highway 89A visitors see little evidence of the Brins Fire.

Off the road and back in the canyon where mature ponderosa pine and oak trees once toawered over the creek, now stand blackened matchsticks over muddied trails.

One of the trails hardest hit by the fire is the Sterling Pass Trail. Soil and rocks have eroded and fallen on the trail. This makes it difficult to navigate. Justin Loxley is a wilderness ranger for the Coconino National Forest. He recently hiked Sterling Pass to assess the damage.

LOXLEY: Well it still smells like a fire.

Loxley points to a burned ponderosa pine tree. It's leaning about 45 degrees over the trail. The base of the tree has been hollowed out by fire. Loxley says this is one of the reasons the trail is closed to the public.

LOXLEY: If you were in the wrong place at the wrong time that put a fast end to a good day

Loxley calls those widow makers. And there are hundreds of them in the canyon.

LOXLEY: What we can't see is what's 100 yards above us on the hillside. And we don't know how damaged these other trees are so it's not just trees falling on the trail it's trees dropping on a 60, 70, 80 even 90 percent slope that are falling down and shooting down the sides of the canyon like torpedoes

When the trees fall they leave cavernous stump holes. And Loxley worries those trees could start landslides. And Sterling Pass isn't the only trail in this condition. Brins Mesa, Cibola pass, Vultee Arch, Wilson Mountain and Wilson Canyon are all closed to the public for safety reasons.

While we may not see the soil stabilize for many years, Loxley says he's hopeful. He points to patches of green on the hillside above.

LOXLEY: It's good to know that while the fire did burn hot it did burn a lot of the standing vegetation, it didn't totally neutralize the ecosystem below the surface of the soil. And all the microorganisms there play a big role in the health of the forest. So the genetic material that was in the soil is coming out now so that's real promising.

He says the trees untouched by fire will soon drop cones that will disperse and start new trees. And there are other signs of life. Loxley points to animal tracks in the mud that he believes are javalina and mule deer.

LOXLEY: I know how unhealthy the forest in northern Arizona can be. This one in particular is very thick Potentially this could have a positive impact on the area and I really think it will.

Sherry and her husband Dick Mangum have published several Sedona hiking guides over the last 15 years. The couple had their first date hiking Wilson Mountain.

DICK MANGUM: I just bet the top of that is toast. That really is upsetting. Once you had made the effort to get up there it's a different life zone. You're up in the pines it's like Flagstaff you start in Sedona and wind up in a Flagstaff like area but then you're able to walk and look over the edge just stunning views.

Sherry takes pictures for the hiking guides. She says some of her favorite subjects to photograph are the trees in Sterling Canyon.

SHERRY MANGUM: And that just breaks my heart those things are going to take a long time to grow back. We'll still have the beautiful stone but it's not going to have the same feel for maybe a hundred years or more because they were just full grown beautiful mature plants and trees in there so that will be quite a bit different from what we've been able to enjoy up to this point.

But the Mangums say there are many other trails to explore. Their latest Sedona hiking book lists 122.

Forest officials plan to re-evaluate the closed trails after Labor Day.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Oak Creek Canyon.