The Cactus Fire

On April 25, 2017, the Cactus Fire ignited on the Lower Salt River, approximately four miles northeast of Mesa, Arizona. In four days the fire affected a total of 818 acres, severely burning 232 acres of an area dominated by the invasive plant species, tamarisk. The Cactus Fire exposed the role that changes to ecosystem function such as water regulation and the introduction of invasive plant species can play in altering fire behavior. When dense vegetation stands become dry or die, they represent large amounts of highly flammable material. Not only can fires such as this severely affect native vegetation, a significant public safety threat is associated with wildfires in areas with close proximity to urban communities and infrastructure, such as the Lower Salt River Recreation Area. While the Cactus Fire decimated a large portion of the landscape in this heavily recreated area, it also opened the door to the potential for an ecological restoration project.

Immediately following the fire, resource managers began experimenting with ways to control the regeneration of tamarisk within the fire’s burn scar. At the same time, exploring the capabilities of reaching the ground water table, knowing that available water would mean the opportunity to revegetate the area with native species. What began as a three-acre experimental plot quickly gained momentum and in 2018 grew to become what is known as the Lower Salt River Restoration Project.

At the heart of this collaborative effort is a partnership between the Tonto National Forest, National Forest Foundation, and Northern Arizona University. The project is managed and executed by a team of restoration specialists known as Ecoculture, within the Center for Adaptable Western Landscapes at Northern Arizona University. Without the collaboration of these partners and many others, this project would not be possible. We sincerely thank everyone who has played a role in making the Lower Salt River Restoration Project a reality.

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