Cast of thousands works to restore charred park
On July 7, 1995, dry lightning ignited a fire that charred around 23,000 acres of central Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. More than 14,411 acres of the land that was burned in the “Rio” fire were within the boundaries of McDowell Mountain Regional Park, representing approximately two-thirds of the park’s total acreage.
Much of the character of the park and its desert environment comes from the majestic Saguaro cacti that sprout arms at about 75 years of age, and the Ocotillos that reach maturity between 100 and 150 years.
Immediately following the fire, local and national media coverage prompted calls from concerned park users across the country. An assessment team met to discuss potential short- and long-term effects of the fire on park resources and the local economy. The team consisted of representatives from Maricopa County’s departments of recreation services, transportation, flood control and risk management, as well as officials from Arizona State University and the cities of Scottsdale and Fountain Hills.
Fortunately, when lightning ignited the fire, a biothermal aircraft from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), already under a photographic mapping contract with Scottsdale, was flying over the area. Through a cooperative effort between Scottsdale, the Maricopa County Recreation Services Department (MCRSD), the Rural Metro Fire Department and the federal Bureau of Land Management, firefighters used the thermal sensitive photographs to locate hot spots in the burned area.
After the fire, the photographs were used to map the perimeter of the burned area. The NASA biothermal aircraft will continue to monitor the recovery of the park and the Sonoran Desert by documenting the influence of vegetation regeneration on surface ground temperatures.
The park was closed to the public during the fire and remained closed until November 1, 1995. However, in August 1995, an open house was held for citizens to observe the fire’s effect on the fragile desert environment, and an interpretive tour was given. The McDowell Park Association provided volunteer support for the park staff.
Reporters from four TV stations, several radio stations and local newspapers were also present at the open house. As a result of the open house and ensuing media coverage, there was an outpouring of interest in the park’s restoration.
For example, MCRSD was contacted with a suggestion for saving burned Saguaro cacti. The method involves removing any potentially viable arms from mortally damaged cacti and planting the arms in a nursery. After the arms establish root systems, the “new” Saguaros will be planted throughout the park’s burned areas. It is anticipated that this technique may speed the cacti’s recovery by 20 to 30 years.
The Rio Fire Restoration Fund was established by MCRSD to accept the numerous monetary donations from individuals and groups who wished to aid the park’s restoration. Initial funds enabled school children to plant nearly 3,000 trees earlier this year.
By last March, $17,293.50 had been raised, with the largest donation coming from members of the Greater Pinnacle Peak Home Owners Association, whose property abuts the park and whose homes were saved from the fire by the Rural Metro firefighters.
In addition, a local artist with a national reputation created paintings of the park and designed a desert scene for T-shirts. Most of the revenues generated from sales of the T-shirts and prints of the paintings go directly to the fund.
British Airways also came to the park’s aid. To kick off the airline’s non-stop flights to London, 450 travel agents attended a conference in Phoenix, and about 150 of the agents volunteered to come to the park and assist with planting and other restoration work. Last April, the airline itself contributed $3,500 to restoration efforts in the park.
The assistance that MCRSD has received from the state, cities and towns, civic groups, private companies and individuals has been critical to the recovery of McDowell Mountain Regional Park. So far, nearly 3,000 people have been involved with the restoration, and volunteer support and commitments to research will likely continue to help the park improve well into the future.