January 6, 2009
The Willow Fire was one of a series of major Rim Country blazes that revealed the danger posed by a forest crowded with more than 1,000 trees per acre across much of the forest.
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The ancient tree reared, dizzyingly upward, the center pole of a complex, now beleaguered ecosystem. The gigantic ponderosa pine had put down roots before the pilgrims landed, and now stood impassively in a cathedral of giants, sheltering a whole world of creatures. High overhead, a woodpecker scavenged for insects, burrowing through the deep crevices and barked canyons of the giant tree. At my feet, lay the debris of a pine cone scavenged by a tuft-eared Abert's squirrel. I pulled loose a bit of bark, and inhaled the distinctive ponderosa scent of vanilla, a bouquet produced by the complex mix of chemicals that help defend the ancient tree against insects, disease and drought.