It may not look like it anymore, but nearly three years ago, much of the Santa Catalina Mountains, including Catalina State Park, was ravaged by the eighth-largest wildfire in Arizona’s history, the Bighorn Fire.
The COVID-19 pandemic had just begun, followed by lockdowns, and Tucson was experiencing an early arrival of the monsoon season.
“That evening, storms were approaching from the south, moving northward,” said Donna Ruthruff, a photographer.
Among these storms was the catalyst for the Bighorn Fire. Ruthruff happened to capture the photo that ignited the blaze.
“I was specifically there to photograph the storm and keep an eye out for lightning strikes,” said Ruthruff, who had been chasing storms for about a year.
She unknowingly captured the lightning strike that started the massive wildfire.
“Initially, I didn’t realize that strike was the one responsible for starting the fire,” she said. “It was only when I went back and compared photos later.”
The fire began from that lightning strike on June 5, 2020, and blazed for over six weeks, consuming more than 119,000 acres.
“It will take a significant amount of time for the area to recover,” said Steven Miranda, a fire staff officer with the Coronado National Forest, explaining that nearly three years after the fire was contained on July 23, the impact will be felt for generations.
“It may take 75 to 100 years before we see substantial changes,” he explained. “The most significant impact was on the timber and the forest atop the mountain.”
While vegetation took the brunt of the Bighorn Fire’s impact, Miranda notes that most wildlife in the area has returned.
“Wildlife did experience some effects initially, but the situation has improved,” he said.
Reports from the National Interagency Coordination Center estimate the fire’s damages at over $44 million.
Surprisingly, there were only seven non-fatal injuries reported, and no structures were damaged.
Miranda emphasizes that applying the lessons learned from the Bighorn Fire is crucial to prevent such a massive blaze in the future.
“We need to continue implementing prescribed burns, possibly more than before. This may result in short-term smoke impacts for communities, but it will reduce the likelihood of another Bighorn Fire,” Miranda said.
As for the photographer who captured the pivotal image, she admits it’s not one of her favorite photos.
“It’s the only photo people want to see from that night, and it’s not the best quality,” Ruthruff said.
Despite its blurry nature, she recognizes the significance of documenting the power of Mother Nature.
“Nevertheless, it documents the beginning of a significant event, and we’re grateful that no lives were lost, and structures remained unharmed,” she said.