I wanted to get a look at the 2001 Leroux Fire burn area. I parked just east of Snow bowl Rd and ended up hiking NE through the main burn area until I met the Kachina Trail. I followed the trail until I came into the large grassy open area on the trail. I started to go up hill to see how far up the area burned and when the grass ended. I kept going further and further up and eventually I went all the way up to Fremont Saddle. I traversed along a contour across to the south side of Fremont Ridge and then descended almost due south back through the burn area until I got to Freidline Prairie Rd, where I hiked west on the road until I got to my car.
150 years ago the San Francisco Peaks would have presented a completely different view to the south and Flagstaff then they currently do. We all know the ponderosa pine forests were open, airy, had widely spaced trees and a rich, healthy, diverse herbaceous and grassy ground cover, and on the south face of the peaks, this vegetation zone extends up to around 8900' today. Below this line there is an almost pure ponderosa forest, with some mixed conifer species. In a few spots there is a zone of old growth pine and mixed conifer species with a dense layer of reproduction. However, above 9000' almost all of the south face of Fremont Ridge, and the large apron that extends out from it, was open and grassy in the past, and had few if any trees on its slopes below the historical lower elevation zone for bristlecone pine, and above the ponderosa dominated mixed conifer belt. Today, from Flagstaff, we can still see remnants of what must have been a large grassy belt extending most of the way across the south face of the Peaks from about 9000' to around 10,500' or so.
This grassy zone wasn't completely devoid of trees, but from what I saw today, it must have been very open and the trees were probably confined to the wetter areas, in rocky areas, or only in isolated groves. What makes me so sure of this? Two things, 1) an almost uniform and very extensive grassy layer the extended all the way from Freidline Prairie Rd to well over 11,000', and 2) a relatively uniform species composition and age distribution within the currently existing stands of trees on the south slopes.
The common grasses from top to bottom today were fescue and mughly grass. The fescue is usually pretty shade intolerant, and its wide spread distribution suggests that it was once far more dominant on these slopes than it is today. It also is growing under the live trees that are present today, though in a diminished capacity, and in a few of the areas where the trees had died, it was very resurgent.
The trees that were in the area really fall into 2 classes, those which were present before 1900 and those which have come in since 1900. The trees which were in the area before 1900 in the elevation below about 9000' included ponderosa pine, which was dominant for most of the elevation zone. Other trees were douglas fir and white pine, both of which appear to have been pretty widely scattered and not very common across the broad grassy belt. Above 9000' in elevation it appears to have been almost exclusively bristlecone pine.
Today, much of this area includes abundant aspen which is visible from town in the fall and well liked by people, and a lot of young white pines, young bristlecone pines up higher, and dense ponderosa pine at the lower levels; the usual suspects. Also, there are occasional areas of young dense douglas fir, generally found around a very large, usually dead, old growth tree or two which had the form of open grown trees (large limbs present to nearly ground level). The area above 10,000' includes an enourmous amount of young bristlecone pines. Above 10,500 they are growing in with the old granddaddies of the area, all of which have multiple fire scars. This area also included a lot of the bleached white skeletons of the long dead bristlecone pines, both standing and on the ground. Depending on where you are, there are occasional young dense white pines, a rare living or more likely a skeleton of an old white pine, and of course a ton of even aged aspen which came out from around the rocky areas, or from other areas on the Peaks to form an Aspen belt on the Peaks. Trouble for aspen lovers is that its not reproducing in any significance, and its dying, big time. Its dying both from the numerous fires which have occurred up there (from lightning strikes or spots from the Leroux Fire), or its dying from its age and the poor site conditions of that south face. It appears not to be reproducing very well because of the Elk, and other unknown reasons.
What will happen in the future? The Leroux Fire happened 1 year after Kendrick's Pumpkin Fire, but I don't think a severe burn on the south face of the Peaks would result in a Pumpkin type of fire on it. Actually, I would like to see this type of event, because I believe it would rejuvenate the Peaks. Everywhere I looked I saw grass under the trees. The grass would carry the fire and hopefully kill most of the trees that weren't there in 1850. Aspen would sprout up, and most would be eaten by the Elk, so they might be lost to history (in their current capacity), but they still would be up there and they wouldn't disappear completely. A lot of the bristlecone would be killed, but a lot would remain. The big old ones are clearly fire resistant, and hopefully a lot of the areas with very dense young trees would burn up and not crown to kill the old trees, or not carry fire very well at all, but who knows. Down low, a lot of that area burned in 2001, so another fire would be good news, freshening the range and hopefully killing some more of the ponderosa. Besides, a lot of the trees are dying anyway from beetles.
It isn't likely to happen since the hotshot crew is about 2 miles away, and people who would protest the hell out of an attempt to thin the forests on the slopes to minimize damage from a fire after no fires in 100 years would be just as likely to protest the lack of suppression in the so called wilderness area. Curiously, in our TrailDex Dynamic map, you can see the grass extending from below 8000' all the way up to over 11,000' and almost to Fremont Peak. You can see the remaining open parks, an you can see the 2001 burn areas. The grass is golden and brown in the higher resolution image.
How did this get like this. The usual: grazing, there is a barbed wire fence in Fremont Saddle from an old grazing allotment that may have extended to the stockades on Freidline Prairie Rd, and then 100 years with out fire to exclude the younger trees.
I'm getting tired of writing, so if you want something clarified or supported, post a comment and I'll try to get back to you.