Throughout the summer, closed gates and yellow tape bracketed the highway through Oak Creek Canyon, a constant reminder of the 21,000-acre Slide Fire that ripped through the canyon in May and June.

After almost three months, many of the gates were unlocked and much of that tape came down this week as Forest Service officials opened up the areas they had kept cordoned off all summer.

It was a welcome relief to recreators and the businesses that depend on them. But a trip inside the fire line shows that the scars left by the blaze have only just begun to heal.

What could have been

The prospect of losing an awe-inspiring place like Oak Creek Canyon was a blow to the soul for many locals. So to see that some of the area’s most beloved nooks and crannies hadn’t been completely ravaged by fire was a relief, said Wib Middleton, a professional photographer who has lived in Sedona for 15 years. 

“There was a time when a lot of us in Sedona were weeping thinking it was lost,” Middleton said.

He hiked into the West Fork trail of Oak Creek Canyon Wednesday with a tripod and camera to capture the forest as it starts to regrow. Ferns and grasses had already begun to spring up around blackened tree trunks. Many other trees appeared to have been untouched by fire. 

“It’s remarkable how intact it is,” Middleton said.

Immediately after the fire, the Forest Service did a standard burn area assessment that found that about 5,000 acres saw moderate- to high-intensity fire. Forest recovery experts marked 2,175 of those severely burned areas to receive targeted seeding and mulching because of their location in relation to humans, property and natural and cultural resources.

Thanks in part to generous monsoon moisture, two months after seed and hay mulch were scattered in those areas, the native grasses are almost a foot tall, providing a bright green splash to the charred landscape.

The areas that weren’t mulched and seeded will take about three years to begin functioning like a normal ecosystem thanks to quicker-growing grasses and shrubs, said Rory Steinke, the assistant team leader for Burned Area Emergency Response. It will take decades longer for the trees in the area’s trees to start to recover, though. Steinke said he doesn’t expect ponderosa pine growth for another 30 to 40 years.

The Forest Service also assessed the trails in the area and found that the popular West Fork trail was relatively unharmed, but the A.B. Young trail, with its 33 switchbacks up to the rim of Oak Creek Canyon, will likely get completely washed away in the coming months, Steinke said. The trail will be closed until the Forest Service repairs it in two or three years, he said.

The cost of the Forest Service’s restoration efforts totaled $2.1 million, about a fifth of what it cost to battle the blaze.

The area has been fortunate so far because particularly heavy monsoon rains that tend to produce flash floods skirted  the burn scar. With the end of summer rains, monitoring done along Oak Creek showed that E. coli levels, which skyrocketed during the summer, have returned to safe levels.

Customers coming back 

Seeing cars streaming through Oak Creek Canyon and parking lots filling up was a welcome relief for area businesses.

“It’s starting to feel like a normal fall,” said Frank Garrison, owner of The Butterfly Garden Inn. Garrison was against the Forest Service’s decision to close the entire canyon from the beginning. The decision seemed too far-reaching for the actual danger that existed, Garrison said as he staffed the register at the inn’s Canyon Market on Wednesday. Officials could have left trails east of Oak Creek open, for example, “but they didn’t seem to want to be bothered,” he said.

This summer also has been a struggle for Daniel Garland, the owner at Indian Gardens Oak Creek Market. With Oak Creek closed, items like fishing supplies lingered on the shelf and business was noticeably down throughout July, August and September, he said.

Faced with the same situation, Junipine Resort and Restaurant offered special promotions to keep business flowing through the restaurant and offered winter rates for its villas this summer, said Melissa Laundre, Junipine’s event coordinator.

Laundre said the decision to reopen the canyon to hiking, camping and fishing came at the right time, though. Thanks to changing leaves and beautiful weather, October is the busiest month for many businesses in the area.

That isn’t the case for Slide Rock State Park, though. Bryan Martyn, director of Arizona State Parks, said that as cooler weather makes swimming at Slide Rock less appealing, the park has little hope of recovering the visitors and dollars it lost over the summer. Last year, 240,000 people visited the park from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Martyn said. This year, the park saw about 2,000 visitors during that time.

The more than 99 percent drop was a huge hit to the park and Martyn estimated the fiscal impact was $500,000.

Recreation Resource Management, the company that manages three campsites and two day use areas in Oak Creek Canyon also took close to a $500,000 hit in gross revenues when those areas were closed by the Forest Service. Owner Warren Meyer also had to lay off many of his employees who were working in the area. Starting Oct. 1, Warren opened Manzanita campground, Call of the Canyon day use area and Grasshopper Point day use area and was planning to open Pine Flats campground as well. He said he was able to put 12 employees back to work, but normally he would have 30 to 40 employees working in the canyon.

As word spreads about the canyon reopening, business and residents said they expect visitors to start flooding back into the canyon. Even so, this fall may be a great opportunity for locals to visit the canyon without quite as many of the usual crowds, said Meyer, the manager of recreational areas in the canyon. The flames of Slide Fire appeared to spare many of the maples that light up West Fork when their leaves turn red and gold this time of year.

“The foliage still looks like it could be a beautiful fall,” Middleton said, camera in hand.

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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