How Mount Charleston Endures

Four months after 28,000 acres of Mount Charleston were consumed by flames, the scars abound. But the future slowly sows its seeds.

Text by Jim Hurja, U.S. Forest Service soil scientist and leader of Mount Charleston’s Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation Team, as told to Ryan Olbrysh


“The fire burned in the upper reaches of the watershed. The burned area here on Harris Mountain is above the pines in the foreground. The brown trees are those that were burned but not totally consumed. The light tan you see on the ground is where a helicopter dropped straw to slow down erosion and provide material to help vegetation regrow.”


“Nearly all of these trees have been killed. The needles left on the trees will eventually fall and provide additional ground cover. The fire didn’t cause the trees to bend downward. A couple of Decembers ago we had a storm event that deposited a lot of wet snow on the trees, the weight of which caused the trees to bend over or break off.”


“The last major fire occurred 90 years ago, and most of these trees you see grew after that fire. Some of the older pines have thicker bark and may survive this most recent blaze. But bark does not grow back over burnt wood; the cambium layer is killed and prevents new bark and wood from growing.”


“The trees that burned were predominantly pinyon pine [pictured] and juniper. Significant numbers of ponderosa pine, white fir, limber pine and bristlecone pine also burned.”


“The fire started on a ridge between Trout and Carpenter canyons. It burned up and over the ridgeline into Kyle Canyon, then moved south and east along the ridge, burning the upper watersheds of Lovell Canyon and eventually burning into the Harris watershed, consuming the whole watershed before finally running out of significant fuel in the desert in Kyle and Harris canyons.”


“All the vegetation and ground cover was burned off the soil. High-intensity fire altered the chemical makeup of the soil, so that trees, shrubs and grasses were no longer able to capture rainfall and facilitate infiltration into the soil. Any rain will run right off, taking along ash and soil. What you see in this photo is straw mulch that was spread on the soil by helicopter. This, combined with the needles cast from the dead trees, will provide a mulch cover to absorb moisture and provide a means for vegetation to regenerate.”


“In this picture, I’m showing the high watermark from the storms [in early September]. In some places, the mark was more than 12 feet, and these floods can continue to happen until the burned landscape revegetates. As vegetation increases, more rain is captured and absorbed in the soil. Areas like this will remain closed until the landscape has a chance to recover.”


“In areas of low- to moderate-intensity fire, seeds and roots survived. As seen in this photo, natural recovery has already begun.”