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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
A heavy tanker drops retardant on flames near Cove Fort in 2007.

The 363,000-acre Milford Flat fire last year could have been more like a 20,000-acre wildfire if there had been less cheatgrass and more of the less flammable Russian import forage kochia or crested wheat grass growing in the area, Utah Department of Agriculture & Food's Bill Hopkin said Tuesday.

For this year's battle in the war on cheatgrass, state and federal agencies are working together to plant more of the favorable greener grasses in areas of Utah heavily populated by nonindigenous cheatgrass, which dries out quickly after a short green period.

There's also $2 million available to private individuals and groups in the joint effort to help stabilize current conditions in Utah that are still risky for more cheatgrass-fueled fires this year.

"It's a problem throughout the entire Intermountain West," Utah Department of Agriculture and Food commissioner Leonard Blackham said in a meeting with the Deseret News editorial board Tuesday.

Hopkin, Blackham, Utah Department of Environmental Quality executive director Rick Sprott and the Bureau of Land Management's Utah director Selma Sierra were all at the table talking about how fires energized by cheatgrass can impact air quality, rangelands and public lands used for recreation. Their goal for anyone with a stake in areas being overrun by cheatgrass is to get them involved in controlling the spread or dominance of it.

"There's not a winner in catastrophic fires," Blackham said about fires such as Milford Flat, which was sparked by lightning.

Sprott said that over the course of two weeks, the Milford fire released particulate matter into the air equivalent to six months of automobile particulate emissions throughout Utah.

"That's a big, 'I gotcha,'" he said.

Restoration efforts in areas devastated by wildfires last year are focused on minimizing the frequency and size of future fires. That includes "green stripping" areas plagued by cheatgrass, which still thrives after a fire. The strips include planting a seed mixture of the Russian grasses that have already proven, even in the Milford Flat area, to stave off the spread of a wildfire.

Applications are already coming in for portions of the $2 million in state funds to fight cheatgrass. Blackham said he wants more commitment from federal funding sources, particularly since the problem is deeply rooted on federal lands that are adjacent to state and private lands.

Blackham said the problem is so bad that large, naturally occurring fires that are supposed to show up every 25 to 40 years or as infrequent as 100 years are now coming every two or three years.

"It's like a cancer," Hopkin added.

He noted that a Utah State University study due out soon will show how cheatgrass is a negative contributor to nature's ability to capture and store carbon. Hopkin said the grass' short green period means it doesn't capture much carbon dioxide and when it burns it releases CO2 into the atmosphere.

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