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As climate changes & sprawl encroaches, saguaros, symbol of the Southwest, more prone to wildfires

ORO VALLEY, Ariz. — It began with a flash of lightning, the fire that swept across the rugged Santa Catalina Mountains on Tucson’s edge. By the time firefighters got the blaze under control, it had torched thousands of saguaros, the towering cactuses that can reach heights of 60 feet and live for 200 years.

The loss was gut-wrenching for many in Arizona, where Indigenous peoples learned to draw sustenance from the treelike saguaros long before they emerged as a celebrated symbol of the Southwest. Some saguaros are still standing within the year-old scar of the Bighorn Fire, their trunks singed all the way up to their limbs, a testament to their reputation as masters of desert survival.

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