by: Oscar S. Mestas, Regional Urban Forester, Texas Forest Service

A year ago, Texas said a sad goodbye to a long-standing national champion, a Rio Grande cottonwood in the Davis Mountains that was lost in 2011’s Rockhouse Fire. To remember this magnificent tree on the anniversary of its demise, we wanted to share Texas Regional Urban Forester Oscar S. Mestas’ touching reflection on the tree, which was written a short month after its death.

Derrick Nahill inside former champ after Rockhouse Fire. Courtesy: Texas Big Tree Program

What a sad day. I’m standing underneath our national champion Rio Grande cottonwood (Populus deltoides ssp. wislizeni) looking for signs of life, and it doesn’t look good.

No, this time it’s not the drought — although what I’m seeing is certainly related. Just a month ago, on April 9th, our long-standing drought combined with red-flag winds and an electrical spark to create one of the worst wildfires in Texas’ history. The Rockhouse Fire, as it’s now called, started near Marfa and within five hours had swept north more than 25 miles, through this small West Texas town of Fort Davis, destroying 24 homes and two businesses before burning this pasture on the edge of town, where I’m now standing.

I’m with our local forest inventory crew for this area, forester Derrick Nahill and resource specialist Charles Stair, to see if the tree can survive. It’s Derrick who decides to climb inside the burned-out trunk for a quick picture, but even that makes me nervous. So much heartwood had been turned to ash by the fire that it likely won’t be standing much longer; I just don’t want to be underneath it when it falls. What’s that old riddle? “If a tree falls and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” I’m betting this one will not go quietly when it finally collapses.

This tree is special to me because it was one of our longest-reigning national champs (1976) and a source of local pride for the town. In fact, we were just here in March to update its measurements for the next National Register of Big Trees to be issued in July. Derrick, Charles and I were joined by Texas Big Tree Coordinator Pete Smith and Forester Gretchen Riley to give it a checkup. The tree measured a whopping 364 inches in circumference and 82 feet tall and had an average crown spread of 115 feet for a tree index score of 475 points — still plenty big enough to retain its champion status. You can see some of those pictures on the Big Tree page of our agency website. A happier day, for sure.

Rio Grande cottonwood in its glory. Courtesy: The Davey Tree Expert Company

Another happy day occurred in December 2003 after some New Mexico tree hunters claimed they had a bigger tree. I drove all the way to Albuquerque and measured their contender several times before the locals gave in. That headline made the papers from Fort Davis to Albuquerque: “Texas tree fends off New Mexico challenger!” I’m glad that this tree has been memorialized in photographs, books and paintings. If you are an urban forestry award winner in Texas, you may even have a print of this tree on your wall. And somewhere out there, little clones of this giant may exist, created from cuttings taken from the tree by Patty Manning of Sul Ross State University several years back. I hope so.

I’ve seen this kind of thing before, of course. We lose a champion in my Trans-Pecos region every now and then to a variety of natural forces: lightning, wind, insects, disease or drought. But losing this big tree to this big wildfire is somehow more personal. It’s a tree with which I’ve had a long relationship in my Texas Forest Service career, and I’m sad to see that end. Goodbye, old friend … I’m glad to have known you!