A little more than a year after the Slide Fire blazed through Oak Creek Canyon, U.S. Forest Service officials have determined that the area has recovered enough to avoid the need for widespread closure of the canyon this summer.
That determination was made after an agency assessment team found a 50 percent improvement in hydrologic conditions across the burn area, said Nicole Branton, district ranger with the Red Rock Ranger District. More important for potential visitors, that finding translates into a 50 percent reduction in the risk to canyon recreationists when it comes to flooding, rockfall and debris flow, Branton said.
"It has been a dramatic reduction in risk compared to last year," she said. "Looking at that analysis, the threshold for needing closures is not there."
In addition to deciding against blanket closures of Oak Creek Canyon this summer, Branton said the Forest Service also will lift closures on the A.B. Young Trail and the area between Slide Rock and Halfway Picnic Area that have been in place since last year.
The vegetation along the A.B. Young trail was completely scorched in the Slide Fire but it has recovered to a level where the Forest Service believes it can be hiked without increasing erosion, Branton said.
The area between Slide Rock and Halfway Picnic Area west of U.S. Highway 89A has been closed due to concern about rockfall, but that risk has diminished as well, she said.
Branton attributed the area's relatively quick recovery to this year's wet spring weather, as well as last summer's monsoon that doused the area with about 20 percent more moisture than normal but never dumped major flood-inducing precipitation directly on the burn scar.
The Forest Service treated about 2,100 acres with aerial seeding and mulching, and those areas are recovering very well, she said.
New growth in vegetation slows down water that hits the burn scar, and the reduced hydrophobicity of soils that forest managers also observed means more water will absorb into the soil instead of rolling off.
Branton emphasized, however, that the area could still see increased flooding this summer and named fire-weakened trees as another potential danger. Depending on the severity of summer storms that roll through the area over the next several months, there's also the possibility that the Forest Service will close individual campsites for short periods of time, Branton said.
It will still take several years for the area to fully recover, she said.
The decision that the canyon's recreation areas and campgrounds will get to stay open this summer is welcome news for Recreation Resource Management, the company that manages many of those areas.
"We're really excited and of course all of the people that didn't get to come last year I'm sure are pretty excited that (the canyon) will be open and available for recreation this year," said Chris Cannizzaro, the company's district manager for the Sedona area.
Already this summer, campgrounds and recreation areas in Oak Creek Canyon have seen a 5 percent to 7 percent increase in visitors over last year, Cannizzaro said. A big draw for people is the fact that there are currently no fire restrictions in place so campfires and charcoal grills in campgrounds and picnic areas are fair game. This is the first time that has been the case in June since Cannizzaro came to the area seven years ago, he said.
Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or email@example.com