PHOENIX — Standing on the patio of his home near Cave Creek, Bill Victor used to be able to see saguaros, barrel cactus, Palo Verde and mesquite trees covering the mountains.
Since the mammoth Cave Creek Complex fire scorched the area near his Tonto Hills home two weeks ago, that view has changed a bit.
"All the large mountains around our house are black," Victor said. "They've really been desolated."
Because desert plants are not accustomed to living with fire, ecologists say native vegetation in some of the areas charred by this year's wildfires may never completely recover.
Desert plants have grown far apart for at least 10,000 years and there hasn't been an opportunity for fires to spread, said Mark Dimmitt, director of natural history with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
But since the 1970s, areas below 3,000 feet in elevation have been invaded by nonnative grasses that are filling bare spaces in the desert and allowing blazes to spread, Dimmitt said.
While fires have been in the desert for only a few decades, it would take native vegetation hundreds of thousands of years to develop resistance to flames.
That means scorched areas of the Sonoran Desert, such as where the Cave Creek Complex fire started northeast of Phoenix last month, won't recover, Dimmitt said.
"Most of the plants there are going to die," he said. "Probably 80 percent of them will be killed by the fire."
The National Interagency Fire Center's Southwest Coordination Center reports that more than 477,323 acres have burned in at least 2,077 fires across Arizona this year. The vast majority of those fires have been in desert scrub and chaparral areas, said Arizona State Land Department spokesman Jon Kohn.
Those figures include the Cave Creek Complex fire, which had scorched at least 248,310 acres and was 90 percent contained by Wednesday afternoon.
Between 10 percent and 20 percent of that area was true Sonoran Desert, full of plants such as saguaros, Palo Verde and mesquite trees, said Norm Ambos, a forest soil scientist who has toured some of the scorched areas.
Many trees were completely torched in the Cave Creek Complex fire, Ambos said.
Many saguaros in that area were only scorched around the bottom, so they will be able to live another two or three years and produce seeds, Ambos said.
But that doesn't mean the native vegetation will immediately spring back to life.
"Saguaros, most of the time, need some type of nurse plant to be established. If it's not under the shade of a Palo Verde or mesquite trees, it usually doesn't survive," Ambos said.
Meanwhile, the faster-growing, more fire resistant nonnative weeds that allowed fires to spread in the first place will have an easier time taking hold of the burned areas, said Daniel R. Patterson, a desert ecologist from the Center for Biological Diversity.
Nonnative weeds not only grow more quickly than native plants, they also suck the moisture out of the soil, making them a problem even once the fire season is over, Patterson said.
"If the status quo continues, this is going to be like a runaway train. Our children and our grandchildren aren't going to know what a healthy desert looks like," Patterson said.
Victor said he has always enjoyed watching nature regenerate itself after a fire. He has already seen deer and other animals come back to the Tonto Hills area to graze on vegetation that wasn't burned, he said.
But Victor also has little hope he will be able to enjoy views of saguaro-covered mountains from his home again.
"It's going to take a long time for these things to come back," he said. "Not in our lifetimes, that's for sure."
On the Net:
Southwest Coordination Center: http://gacc.nifc.gov/swcc/
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: http://www.desertmuseum.org/