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Loss of Red Butte growth far from natural

Preserve was damaged by another man-made fire just 4 years ago

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Red Butte Canyon is famous as a last bastion of the untouched Western landscape, a place where livestock never grazed and development never scarred the face of nature.

Much of the canyon was designated a "research natural area," off-limits even to hikers. But the fire that swept through this week was anything but natural.

It was caused by fireworks that were illegal in that area, officials say.

Lightning-caused fire is a natural instrument of change and restoration, cleaning out an accumulation of dead brush. Plant species that live in Red Butte Canyon are what botanists call "fire tolerant," meaning they eventually recover from fires.

Natural fires might happen every generation or so. But this week's man-made fire came only four years after children toasting marshmallows set a blaze that burned part of the canyon.

The unnatural frequency is "definitely a tragedy," in protected areas like this, said Adrienne Cachelin, director of education for Red Butte Garden and Arboretum.

She spoke with the Deseret News on Thursday afternoon, just after touring scorched areas. "It's still smoking," she said.

"I guess I was kind of stunned, more than anything. . . . It seemed huge to me."

Only about 200 acres of the research natural area's 5,300 acres burned, she said. The blaze was close to the garden and partly in sight of the visitor center.

The fire struck north-facing slopes. Among the larger plants, it burned mostly gamble oak. Some leaves remain on the trees "but there's just no understory."

Normally, the understory includes small plants like the arrowleaf balsamroot, bitterbrush, mules ear, grasses and wildflowers.

The plants should eventually recover, but when is "a good question," she said. Also, destroying native plants will allow a foreign invader, cheat grass, to move in. And that could change the ecology.

Still, because the fire was limited, "it could have been a lot worse," Cachelin said. "It didn't damage any active research project."

If lightning had caused the burn, scientists might celebrate the fire, by realizing it was part of a larger natural cycle. Instead, it was "just Fourth of July silliness," she said.

Cachelin invited Utahns to join staff members during the regular nature hike, which is free after a visitor pays admission to the garden and arboretum. The hike is from 6-8 p.m. every Thursday.

This would be a good opportunity, she said, "if people are interested in learning about the ecology of the area and looking at the burn."

E-MAIL: bau@desnews.com