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Dryness, heat turn Utah plants into tinder

Published: Saturday, July 21 2007 12:15 a.m. MDT

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Years of drought, a low snowpack and record high temperatures have transformed plant life across Utah into tinder, providing fuel for the high-speed wildfires burning across the landscape.

Among the primary culprits keeping these fires burning are: cheatgrass, sagebrush, bunch grasses, juniper and gamble oak.

These dry plants are igniting across the state, according to Randy Eardley, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center.

"From August to September any lightning that strikes is going to burn," Eardley said.

Cheatgrass, a non-native species, is known for its invasiveness and ability to ignite. It starts to grow in early June and is dead by August — just in time to be the ideal fuel to spread fires, especially during dry lightning season, which runs from mid-July to August and sometimes into early September, Eardley said.

Summer lightning storms provide the primary ignition for wildfires, said Chris Young, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service. "When everything is dry, the grasses ... are ready to catch fire. Once a fire gets going, it draws moisture out of the trees, the grass gets going so fast."

Cheatgrasses can grow in "carpets" across the Great Basin area, according to Doug Ramsey, a professor in the department of wildland resources at Utah State University.

The grass is highly adaptable, grows up to 2 feet tall and, when dried out, is ample fuel for fires, said Rory Reynolds, watershed program coordinator for the Utah Department of Natural Resources. When ignited, the plants are great carriers for wildfires, especially when they are near sagebrush.

"From a land-restoration standpoint, we've got to be able to minimize cheatgrass," Reynolds said, adding it will take federal and state funds set aside for a long-term commitment toward replacing areas overrun by cheatgrass with more beneficial, less problematic plants and grasses. Sagebrush is a native plant that was targeted for eradication from the 1940s to 1960s. It has made a comeback. Under such dry conditions it burns well, according to Ramsey.

If a solitary sagebrush catches fire from a lightning strike, the flames often don't spread, but when it is surrounded by cheatgrass, this bridging material carries the fire to other plants.

Typically, sagebrush has a burn cycle every 50 to 60 years, but cheatgrass has shortened that interval because it burns so easily, which makes it difficult to establish larger shrubs and trees.

"Fire intervals for cheatgrass are now less than 10 years," Ramsey said. "Because of the increasing burn cycle so often shrubs can't stay around long enough to get established."

Faced with this daunting task, state and federal agencies have already begun planning how to restore areas damaged by fires. The group of public and private agencies known collectively as the Utah Partners for Conservation and Development has been meeting this past week about where to target restoration efforts.

"This is the first time in history where a partnership effort like this has come together to address wildfire restoration on this kind of a scale," said Reynolds.

At stake are Utah's 736,563 acres burned in wildfires so far this year. That figure puts Utah ahead of all other states as having the most acreage hit by wildland fires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Officials are visiting burned areas, where the smoke has cleared and the damage can be surveyed. They're finding that some terrain impacted by the Neola fire and the Milford Flat fire — the largest ever in Utah — may need reseeding with native plants and grasses.

Reynolds said one goal is to avoid landslides in areas where fire has stripped the terrain of vegetation, which would make the soil unstable during a heavy rainfall.

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