Why Should We Care About Saguaros Burning in the Sonoran Desert?

Saguaros Desert Burning
Photo credit Kelly Presnell

It has been three weeks since the Bighorn Fire was first sparked by lightning. During this time, nearly 95,225 acres have burned, over 20 million dollars have been spent in emergency response crews, and yet the Bighorn Fire has only been 45 percent contained and continues to threaten the Catalina Mountain ecosystem in Tucson, Arizona.

One of the most affected plant species has been the saguaro cactus. Saguaros are essential parts of the Sonoran Desert ecosystem, as they provide food and shelter to many desert creatures. As of last week, scientists estimated that as many as 2,000 saguaros had been burned. Given that saguaros take up to 70 years to grow up to 6 feet and start producing their first flowers, this is extremely concerning.

Studies in other areas of the Sonoran Desert have shown high rates of saguaro mortality and stunted growth after a decade post-fire. It is clear that the ecological implications of the Bighorn Fire will be devastating. These impacts, though incredibly important to fuel our conservation efforts post-fire, are not the only reasons why the Tucson community at large should care about protecting saguaros and preventing wildfires.

saguaros BELatina Latinx
Photo credit Lauren Belcher

Saguaros have a connection to almost all organisms in the Sonoran Desert, and humans are no exception. The Tohono O’odham people have a long, interdependent relationship with the saguaro. Tribal nations have historically based their economic practices, culture, and spirituality on the land. Therefore, the Bighorn Fire’s consequences extend beyond environmental damage. 

When saguaros burn, it is as if parts of the Tohono O’odham culture burns too. Saguaros are sacred to the Tohono O’odham people, serving as sources of medicine and food. Tohono O’odham creation stories say that saguaros originated from “a neglected boy who sank into the ground,” who then emerged as the first saguaro. As a result, Tohono O’odham children grow up learning to respect saguaros as one of their own.

Protecting saguaros BELatina Latinx
Photo credit Morgan Quimby

So integral is the saguaro to the Tohono O’odham people that their calendar is based on the saguaro life cycle. They determine the beginning of spring in a ritual where they sing for a good saguaro harvest and mark the New Year after the first saguaro harvest. After collecting the fruit with a kukuipad constructed of several saguaro ribs, the Tohono O’odham people hold saguaro fruit wine ceremonies to call for the monsoon season.

This is why protecting saguaros is just as much of a fight for social justice and preserving culture as it is an environmental issue. To shorten a saguaro’s life cycle is to shorten that of the Tohono O’odham people. Even though the recovery of the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert will slowly happen, we will not see full reparations in our lifetimes. Thus, we need to advocate for stricter fire prevention, better suppression measures, and proactive restoration efforts.