Parts of the Chiricahua Mountains near the small community of Portal are experiencing a slow ecological recovery after the Horseshoe 2 fire burned more than 200,000 acres in 2011.

A close look at the landscape southeast of Tucson near the New Mexico line shows the devastation experienced by the surrounding forests in the aftermath of the fire.

Areas that once flourished now bear the charred remains of formerly healthy ecosystems.

Donald Falk, a University of Arizona associate professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, says there is a tendency for some forests to come back in a different form after a big fire. He calls this change an “ecosystem tipping point.”

Falk, who specializes in fire history, fire ecology, dendroecology, and restoration ecology, says the full recovery of the ecosystem could take hundreds of years.

“It means for centuries to come, those areas are not going to be forested any more. They’re likely to be dominated by a completely different ecosystem,“ Falk says.

He says as the temperature increases and the climate becomes unstable, conditions become less favorable for the recovery of the type of forests many residents remember seeing in the area.

Jeffery Pratt lives near the small community of Portal, which was evacuated during the historic Horseshoe 2 fire. He recalls being worried about breathing the air in the fire's heavy smoke.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t want to ever see anything like it ever again. It’s like being by a volcano,” Pratt says.

However, residents point out that the economic situation has improved significantly this year, with visitors returning to bird watch, hike and enjoy the desert outdoors.

Ashley Grove is a journalism student and intern at Arizona Public Media.