PHOENIX — A fire that has burned through more than 2 square miles and damaged three homes this week in Arizona is being fueled by a culprit that firefighters know all too well.
The fire is burning in a dry riverbed overgrown with salt cedar, an invasive species that has long been a headache for firefighters and ecologists in Arizona. Salt cedar creates volatile and extreme fire conditions and dark smoke when it is burned. It is also a thirsty plant that consumes large amounts of water, creating new challenges in a time of drought.
When salt cedar burns, it doesn't burn clean but burns hot and black, said Jason Coil, a firefighter for the Sedona Fire Department.
Salt cedar is a problem when it's surrounding the fire instead of being in the center of it, Coil said. When salt cedar is on the outskirts of a fire, it makes it easier for the fire to spread.
So where did this invasive plant come from and how is it affecting the environment?
Salt cedar is an invasive species that was first brought to the U.S. from Russia, said Helen Graham, deputy fire staff officer for the Tonto National Forest. Salt cedar has the potential to grow up to 20 feet tall.
The invasive species was originally used in Arizona as a way to control erosion along the Colorado River Basin. But it quickly became a problem as the plants became more abundant and consumed more water.
"They liked it because it grew quickly, it established itself quickly. But unfortunately that's what caused a lot of the problems with it as well," said Dolores Garcia, fire mitigation expert at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Arizona.
Salt cedar thrives in areas where water is easily accessible, experts say. The species is also known to have an extensive root system that is hard to eradicate. The plant gets its name because its leaves have a salt-like substance on them that causes the ground to become salty when they fall. That makes it harder for native plants to grow.
There have been various efforts to eradicate stubborn salt cedar not only because of its fire-fueling agents, but also because it consumes so much water. "They take up all of the water that's around them, and then the other plants don't have as deep of roots and are not able to get to the water as well," said Stacey Bealmear-Jones, an urban horticulture specialist.
But the only way this invasive species can be fully eradicated is if you extract its roots, Coil said. This measure is called root plowing where you try to get as much of the root out as possible.
Salt cedar's rapid growth and high water demand has overrun many native species and vegetation that typically surround bodies of water in the western states, Garcia said.
There are some cases where people used salt cedar as decorative foliage around their property, Garcia said. People who use salt cedar as decorative ornaments are urged remove it because of the plant's demand for excessive water.
"Studies have shown that when they begin to eradicate (salt cedar), people have seen more water availability," she said.