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Fall 2013

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To Save a Tree

by Cathleen Cherry

On June 18, the Doce Fire broke out in Prescott National Forest, Ariz., consuming more than 6,700 acres of forest. The national co-champion alligator juniper was saved thanks to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who headed up the mountain, cleared away thick brush at the base of the tree and cut a fire line around it, a week before 19 of them lost their lives bravely fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Prescott resident Cathleen Cherry shares what the alligator juniper and its survival has meant to the local community during its time of grief and loss.

Cherry family and co-champion alligator juniper

The Cherry family with the co-champion alligator juniper in Prescott National Forest. Credit: Cathleen Cherry

Like many, I find myself drawn to trees. I long for summer picnics beneath the elms that shade my town’s heart — the courthouse square in the center of downtown Prescott, Ariz. I gauge the changing of seasons by the color of the cottonwoods that line Willow Creek south of my home, and my family once took a 600-mile drive in order to walk among the largest trees on Earth in Sequoia National Park. In January 2011, this fascination with trees took us on a much shorter trek to see a majestic tree right in Prescott’s backyard.

This tree, a Juniperus deppeana, or alligator juniper, is the largest of its species in the nation and was nominated for inclusion in American Forests’ National Register of Big Trees in 1998 by the Contreras brothers, a long-time ranching family in Yavapai County. But its significance to our community would increase when, two years after my family’s visit, it was saved from the Doce Fire by the Granite Mountain Hotshots just a week before their deaths in the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013.

As my family hiked to the alligator juniper that January 2011 morning, I wondered how big it could really be. Alligator junipers are large trees to begin with, often reaching up to 55 feet in height. I’d seen plenty of this species before and couldn’t quite picture what might make this tree special enough to be a destination in and of itself. I can even recall wondering if we’d really know that we’d arrived if we didn’t have the guidance of a GPS and my expert-at-maps husband.

It seems silly to me now that I had these doubts about the tree’s magnitude. It was unmistakable. This tree is massive: Alligator junipers typically reach three to seven feet in circumference. This one was nearly 26 feet around.

As we took photographs, cradled and dwarfed amid the multiple trunks, I thought about how, like many others, I go outside when I need renewal inside. In nature, we can find the healing salves we seek: the unparalleled vista of Yosemite Valley, the light changing the colors of the Grand Canyon walls, the violence of a summer monsoon in the desert. It is humbling to think that all this exists without our presence and in spite of our interference. And trees are a part of that, too. Standing inside the base of a sequoia that has weathered centuries of fires, storms and drought, you will feel the strength of its silence, in an era of ubiquitous technology in which it seems increasingly difficult to wow our senses.

As I look at the photographs from that day, following the tragedy that touched so many of us, I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude to the men and women who devote their lives to protecting us when we need it most — and also for defending and ultimately leaving behind legacies like this tree.

As the reports of containment of the Doce Fire and the neighborhoods spared came in, many in Prescott wondered aloud if the juniper had burned. We already knew how lucky we were to have emerged from the smoke without serious casualty or property loss, and then word came that our tree had also survived. And not only had it survived, but it had been specifically saved by a firebreak created by the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew.

Later, as word reached us of the tragedies of June 30th — both the Yarnell Hill Fire that consumed much of the mountain hamlet of Yarnell and the deaths of 19 of the men who tried to save that community — the reality of the close call that northwest Prescott had had with the Doce Fire sunk in.

Our loss — our community’s loss — of these brave and courageous young men will reverberate for many years. Nothing can mitigate that. Perhaps, though, those who seek comfort can find it in the massive arms of this alligator juniper that was proudly honored by these brave men. If Mother Nature teaches us anything, it is that we are small, temporary beings. At the same time, though, we are learning already from the Doce Fire, and will, in time, from the Yarnell Hill Fire, that hardiness is one of nature’s gifts. Already, the greening has begun, sprouting from the ashes and blackened soil.

The alligator juniper in Prescott National Forest will stand as a memorial for not only the 19 who gave their lives, but also as a symbol of strength and resilience to our community as we come to terms with this loss and our grief. This tree has so much to teach us. We only need to take the time to listen.

American Forests thanks the Granite Mountain Hotshots for protecting our forests and is planting 1,900 trees in memory of the 19 Hotshots who lost their lives doing a job they loved a week after saving this champion tree.


  1. Jeannie Leighton August 28, 2013 at 10:51 am - Reply

    Cathleen paints a tender moment with this story. It touched my heart when she first shared it in our critique group days after that tragedy and it still holds deep emotional pull. Thank you for publishing it.

  2. Danny Sainato August 28, 2013 at 7:59 pm - Reply

    What a beautiful soul you must be. You can see with your heart what the earth has been displaying to us all. Your tribute to the heroic fighters lost and those who are out there today is wonderful. God bless you Cathleen.
    I know the roots from which you come. Peggy send me the article.

  3. Carol Kemmerer September 9, 2013 at 10:43 pm - Reply

    My son in Portland, Or. sent me this and it is just a
    beautiful tribute to these men. Thank you for the beauty
    and feeling in your words. I will share this with others also so they too can feel that wondrous peace that only
    nature gives. We live in Phoenix and may some day have a
    chance to see this magnificent tree.

  4. Margaret Wedl September 16, 2013 at 10:10 am - Reply

    This is a beautiful tribute to God thru nature and humans! Many thanks Cahtleen! I will also send this on to as many as I can.

  5. Dan Turner October 19, 2013 at 4:36 pm - Reply

    Junipers are great trees and one of my favorites. I had never heard of the aligator, but it is grand and worthy of saving. I am glad the community and the country has this tree to remind them of the creator God who created it. I am also glad it was the Granite Mountain Hotshots who were able to see it saved, and be a reminder to the community and the nation before their final days on earth. Remember the creator of the creation we enjoy so much, and our brothers and sisters who gave their lives doing what they loved.

  6. Mitchell Brookins October 21, 2013 at 5:44 pm - Reply

    God has blessed us in the in this country with so many wonderful things, vistas and vast joys. I have know the alligator juniper, the Giant Sequoia, the Coast Redwoods and the beautiful forests in which they dwell. Unfortunately, many do not hear God calling nor appreciate all that has been provided for us. The Granite Shots are a blessing both in life and in their passing as are those who have and will follow in their footsteps…Bless them all dear Lord!

  7. Nick Smokovich October 29, 2013 at 12:13 pm - Reply

    Great article! As a forester and firefighter I agree with Cathleen that this tree has much to teach us. Big Trees do not become so with time alone. Such a broad tree most likley grew in an open forest historical found in much of the southwest managed by fire. Its up to those of us that love trees to learn about the forests where we live and promote the thinning and prescribed fire the will restore southwest forests to a place where current and future Big Tree can thrive. Be safe and Firewise.

  8. Judy August 12, 2014 at 2:49 am - Reply

    I would love to hike to see this magnificent tree. I’ve seen some of the biggest trees in the world but never an alligator juniper of this size. How do I find this tree? Will the Prescott Forest Service office give me directions? Or is this tree on private land? How does one get the privilege of seeing this tree? Thank you for your help.

  9. Dennis Mishler April 28, 2015 at 4:52 pm - Reply

    This magnificent tree is well worth seeing. It is located on the Western slopes of Granite Mountain just outside of Prescott, AZ. I have seen it twice when hiking with local hiking clubs from Prescott. It takes an hour or more to get to the tree. I can not give you the exact directions but the U.S. Forest Service has an office near downtown Prescott and they could give you a map and instructions to guide you. Are you a highly experienced hiker? If not please do not hike alone in this area. We’ve had too many rescues over the years with hikers on Granite Mountain.

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