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.
In Nephi, there also may be watershed issues, and officials need to make sure charred sections close to where people live are not affecting culinary water supplies.
"We're looking at all lands," Reynolds said.
Grasses aren't the only tinder out there, however.
Small juniper trees and gamble oak are also keeping wildfires hot.
Wild juniper trees are native. They are considered an invasive species as they encroach on desert land and their roots leave any ground near them devoid of moisture. When ignited, juniper oils and sap cause the trees to burn at extremely high temperatures, creating an extremely hot fire.
Gamble oak, another native scrub species that grows along the Wasatch Front, while difficult to ignite, burns hot due to the density of the large shrub's wood.
Gamble oaks are able to regrow following a fire, providing the root system was not damaged.
There are grasses that are considered "firewise," even though they burn.
Bunch grasses, such as blue bunch wheat grass and crested wheat grass, are what officials believe might be the answer to better wildfire control.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has made restoration of wildfire areas a priority as he takes part in meetings that have included talks about how to prevent more wildfires, according to Brian Cottam, whom the governor tapped to be the local-government wildfire liaison.
Reynolds said that the restoration budget will be millions of dollars, but he wasn't prepared this week to specify the exact amount. The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service both have "emergency stabilization" funds for remediation of land impacted by fire.
Tracy Dunford, Fire Management Coordinator for the State Division of Forestry Fire and State Lands, said the grasses are not only beneficial to ranchers but are good for wildlife, too.
Getting their name because they grow in small clumps, these bunch grasses grow well once established, provide food for animals, don't spread and only need to be planted every 20-25 years, Ramsey said.1 comment on this story
But rehabilitating burned areas with these grasses isn't easy, Dunford needs to decide soon how to rehabilitate areas burned by the Milford Flat fire, and the task is daunting.
"If we used all of the equipment that we have and the equipment we have access to, it would take 270 days to re-seed," estimated Dunford, in regard to the land burned in the Milford Flat wildfire.
Whether or not seeds and equipment are available and the right window for planting season is seized will determine when land can be rehabilitated.For more information about Utah wildfires visit: www.utahfireinfo.gov. For information about firewise plants, visit: extension.usu. edu/forestry/reading/assets/pdfdocs/nr_ff/nrff002.pdf.