Earth Notes
4:01 pm
Wed July 16, 2014

Earth Notes: The Slide Fire’s New Old Cabin

When intense wildfires burn through well-loved places like Oak Creek Canyon, the sense of loss is deep. But, sometimes wildfires offer gifts in the midst of destruction.

Leo Holley, the firefighter who discovered the ruins of the Oak Creek cabin, at the site.
Leo Holley, the firefighter who discovered the ruins of the Oak Creek cabin, at the site.
Credit U.S. Forest Service


While battling the Slide Fire in Oak Creek Canyon last May, firefighters discovered the remains of an old log cabin. They protected it, then notified Forest Service archaeologist Jeremy Haines and led him to the site.

Haines suspects this cabin was built in the late 1800s, making it older and more historically significant than many other cabins in the region. The diary of a forest ranger from the early days of the Forest Service suggests that it may have been built by a frontier-era rancher.

During the Slide Fire, crews covered the cabin site with a protective flame-resistant blanket.
During the Slide Fire, crews covered the cabin site with a protective flame-resistant blanket.
Credit U.S. Forest Service

To find out more, Haines sent a sample log from the cabin to the University of Arizona Tree Ring Lab, where dendrochronologist Ronald Towner will analyze it. He’ll cut a cross-section slice of the log and sand it smooth enough to see individual tree cells using a low-power microscope.

The number of rings will reveal the age of the tree. Towner will also graph the width of at least 50 consecutive rings and compare their sequence to a master graph made from scores of northern Arizona trees to learn in what era the tree lived.

If the log still has bark, Towner will know the exact year the tree died. Tool marks on the log will provide clues about the builder. What’s learned will enrich the history of Oak Creek Canyon, a story written in the hearts of trees.