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Surveying Fossil Creek a year after Backbone Fire | Environment
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Surveying Fossil Creek a year after Backbone Fire | Environment

The 41,924-acre Fossil Creek area was destroyed by the Backbone Fire in June 2021. The U.S. Forest Service closed Fossil Creek’s popular swimming and hiking areas to the public due to unsafe conditions caused by flooding, road damage, and downed power lines.

The closure order was created to remain in effect through December 31, 2022, or until it is repealed, whichever comes first. This allows the Forest Service to assess and repair any damage.

Brady Smith, Forest Service public relations officer, stated that Fossil Creek will reopen in fall 2022. However, it is not certain. The safety assessment results will ultimately determine the final decision.

The Arizona Daily SunOn Monday, I was invited to join Forest Service scientists in the Fossil creek area to observe its recovery. The purpose of the visit was to provide a better understanding of current conditions, safety concerns, and science that can help determine when and if a burned area should reopen to the public.

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As wildfires continue to be a threat in the West, closures will become more frequent in areas like Fossil Creek. A little understanding can help avoid a lot of frustration.

The road

Kelly Mott LaCroix was the hydrologist leading the survey team. They met at the intersection of Fossil Creek Road east of Camp Verde and Highway 260 east. The crew then split into four-wheel-drive high-clearance vehicles to travel the 14-mile dirt road through the area around Fossil Creek.

Drivers had to contend from lumbering dump trucks, road-graders, and other off-highway construction vehicle. Navigating the narrow, blind corners between highway and creek bed required careful attention. It was often difficult when a large construction vehicle made it necessary to veer onto the soft shoulder.

Mott laCroix explained that there are two reasons for road maintenance. Fossil Creek Road was in dire need of repair prior to the fire. It had become rutted washboard from years of heavy traffic. According to the Forest Service the Forest Service believes that Fossil Creek’s increased use was one of the reasons they implemented a permit system. Summer season recreational use increased from approximately 20,000 visitors to 2015 to 86,000 visitors. In 2015, 43,000 more visitors were turned away because there was not enough parking. Road maintenance was far past due by 2021.

The Backbone Fire did little to improve the situation. The canyon-bound Fossil Creek Road was susceptible to flooding and road blockage due to the post-fire flooding.

According to Kyle Paffett, hydrologist, it’s only one way in and one way out. It becomes impassable if something happens at the road or there is a debris flow.

The 2021 area was closed to allow maintenance crews to perform large-scale road repairs efficiently without having to interact with the public. Although the improvements are still ongoing, Paffett said that the results are already showing.

He said that this is the most beautiful road he’s ever seen.

Fossil Creek Recovers From Backbone Fire

Fossil Creek is littered with burned trees as a result of a June 2021 fire that destroyed 41,924 acres.

The utilities

Fossil Creek Road is a critical utility corridor. Fossil Creeks extended closing was driven by the importance of securing critical infrastructure. It has allowed repairs and maintenance to be carried out without interference.

Paffett stated that there was a lot of work involved with all the utility companies present.

Mott LaCroix says that beneath the road is a long fiber optic cable, which is critical infrastructure. This cable is how Payson receives all their internet and phone calls.

Fossil Creek could have caused significant road damage that could have led to the destruction of this cable.

Mott laCroix stated that Payson would have been in darkness for all of it.

This fiber optic line was detected in the Forest Services routine post fire flood treatments. It prevented the Forest Services from installing water-averting and culverts.

She said that we couldn’t do any of this work because we didn’t know where the fiber optic cable was. You don’t want the line to be accidentally split.

The wooden towers supporting powerlines in the vicinity of the Irving power plant site were destroyed by the Backbone Fire. Mott laCroix said that it took months to repair the towers and power had to be rerouted through the grid. It was a dangerous and difficult process that required helicopters to lower the new wooden towers onto the site.

Mott LaCroix stated that keeping the public out was essential.

These downed lines are now being repaired and the grid is restored.

Fossil Creek Recovers From Backbone Fire

Kelly Mott LaCroix is a Forest Service hydrologist who tests the hydrophobicity of Fossil Creek soil Monday morning. This marker soil scientists use to assess how the ecosystem is recovering from a wildfire. Fossil Creek was devastated by the Backbone Fire, which occurred in June 2021.


Floods are a very common result of fires, especially in mountainous regions like the one that houses Fossil Creek. Flooding can also bring about debris flows and sediment accumulation that can dramatically alter a landscape.

Fossil Creek experienced extensive flooding after the Backbone Fire. Monday’s survey had the primary goal of assessing the effects of flooding and the potential for future flooding.

Boulder Canyon was the most severely affected area. It had accumulated at least 5ft of sediment from flooding. The bridge that crosses Boulder canyon was flooded by floodwaters. Root debris and silty sand drifts covered the roadway. North of Fossil Creek was unprecedented flooding during the 2021 monsoon. Boulder Canyon may have experienced similar extreme flooding.

Mott LaCroix stated that this bridge was not designed for flow over it.

Paffett shared that she was shocked to find it here.

Significant sediment deposits were also formed downstream of Boulder Canyon’s confluence by the flooding. Sally May, which is a popular spot for cliff jumping in Fossil Creek has been inundated with sediment.

Fossil Creek Recovers From Backbone Fire

Kelly Mott LaCroix, Forest Service hydrologist, touched Monday the bottom of a bridge she couldn’t previously reach. The bridge crosses Boulder Canyon via Fossil Creek Road.

Mott laCroix explained that this whole area in here was once something that would come up above my head. She pointed to a section 40 feet long by 20 feet wide of stream bed.

This water has been replaced by dark, silty and muddy mud that can easily be crossed without getting on one’s knees.

Public safety at Fossil Creek is particularly concerned by changes in the water depth. Because the area is popular for swimming, cliff jumping, it is imperative that users do not assume that their favorite swimming holes will reopen when the area reopens.

Mott LaCroix stated that sediment deposition such as that at Sally May will eventually disappear, but it is not clear how long.

She said it all depends on how many storms we have. It all depends on how the flow is.

Fossil Creek is susceptible to future flooding. The hydrophobicity (or propensity to repel water from soil) and sediment stabilizing properties of plant species are two factors that define the dynamic between floods or fires.

A fire can damage the root structures of plants that stabilize the ground. Fossil Creek’s Backbone Fire was a year ago. New plant life has emerged in Fossil Creek. There are new forbs, billowing mallows, and joyous penstemon sprouts. Bunchgrasses have been re-rooted in the mesquite bosques, under charred limbs. Groundcover is like velvety green tongues that float on the volcanic slopes.

Paffett said that most of the flora which grew back after the fire was native, but some invasive plants are now starting to return. Another reason to keep the area off the roads is to encourage the growth of native plants.

Paffett explained that when you disturb something immediately after a fire, it allows some invasive plant species to flourish and kick out the native plant.

There are also concerns about new growth generating new fuel loads and setting the stage for another fire. However, Paffett states that good management of the area should balance these concerns with the positive, stabilizing effect of plant life.

He said that there is never one solution. It’s all about trying to manage and mitigate the problem and make it work.

The new growth could help reduce future flooding. However it is still unclear how the soil’s hydrophobicity might impact the area. Future flooding could be exacerbated by fire damage and oils from burned plant life.

Monday’s survey revealed that soil hydrophobicity can vary over short distances in a burned area. One area showed that water took a long time to penetrate the soil below a burned mesquite, indicating high hydrophobicity. However, water was able to reach sandy soil within a matter of minutes only 10 feet away.

Mott laCroix said that the Backbone Fire created an array of burn severity and, in turn, an array of hydrophobicity.

A look at the burn map reveals a patchwork effect. The reds of high severity are mixed with yellows and blues from areas that have been moderately or lowly burned. This mosaic pattern was affected by everything, from fuel loads to topography to wind patterns. Complex modeling will be required to predict the likelihood of future flooding in this mix of burn severity.

Conclusions are coming soon.

Monday’s survey of flood risk included the assistance of Doug Von Gausig, Executive Director of Verde River Institute and drone operator.

Drones allow you to access areas that are otherwise impossible to reach. Von Gausig said that during Monday’s survey, three separate drone flights were used in order to check for debris dams, which could have formed from flooding in Fossil Creek’s canyons. Mott LaCroix stated that debris dams can be dangerous during high-flow periods, such as the summer monsoon.

She said that if one fails, you can have cascading failures. This poses a danger to anyone who is playing in the stream.

Fossil Creek Recovers From Backbone Fire

Fossil Creek’s forest floor has seen new growth of native flowers and grasses Monday morning.

The Apache

Fossil Creek hosts many events that are part our origin story, according to Vincent Randall, Apache culture contact for Yavapai-Apache Nation.

Fossil Creek is an important holy spot connected to the healing waters of Montezuma Well. Randall claims that this is where the Apache people emerged.

Fossil Creek was also used as a safe refuge for tribal members to hide from the 1875 march towards San Carlos, which was a government-imposed relocation that resulted in the death of one out of four people. Randall also spoke out about the Luis Homestead, now a parking lot. It was here that Randall’s grandmother was a spiritual leader from Apache.

Randall said that my great grandfathers were buried there. He was a former scout.

Randall doesn’t mind people visiting Fossil Creek so long as they behave responsibly, show moderation, and don’t overrun it. He hopes that 100 to 200 cars will be allowed daily when the site reopens.

Randall said that the Backbone Fire did a great job.

I was expecting just desolation rocks and such, but he said that the grass returned. It destroyed some traditional foods but they’ll come back.

He celebrated the new growth in plant life that had occurred in the year following the fire.

He said it was a beautiful place.

Fossil Creek Recovers From Backbone Fire

Fossil Creek flows by a landscape that was burned in the aftermath of the Backbone Fire, which ravaged 41,924 acres between June 2021 and June 2021.

Beyond human time

Shadowing scientists at Fossil Creek made clear that the future and timeline for its reopening are uncertain. The area is a prime example of the Forest Services multiple-use philosophy. Fossil creek management must also be responsible to ensure its critical utility corridor, its rangeland use, wildlife habitat, and cultural significance for local tribes.

The land may have its own agenda, even though it is complex to manage and monitor.

Paffett stated that this is one of the many things about fire. It is on a scale similar to human time.

Recovery from a fire is slow and takes as long as sediment draining out of a stream bed. But it’s as quick as the new mesquite shoots that emerge from the base a blackened tree. Perhaps recovery is the wrong word. Reset seems more appropriate, as life seems to have accepted the ashen terrain only one year after a devastating fire.

Spiders create webs in open-air spaces between branches that have lost their leaves. The shallows created by sediment deposition are home to young fish that feed on algae that thrives near the sun. Untrammeled flowers are everywhere, and they seem to relax after a year of unvisited quiet.

Two black hawks flew over the creek near the Luis Homestead, the first stop for Mondays monitoring. They flew downstream above a row of verdant cottonwoods, an indication of good things to come.

They are an indicator species, Mott said as the team watched the birds soar. They are one of the indicators we look for to gauge the health of a place.”

Fossil Creek Recovers From Backbone Fire

Fossil Creek Road still has a small washout visible. This is one of many washes that occurred after the Backbone Fire, which ravaged the area in June 2021. It also indicates an increase in flood damage and runoff.

Sean Golightly can be reached at [email protected]

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