Why Worse Wildfires - part 1
There are several theories trying to explain the recent uptick in wildfires throughout the western USA. Some scientists blame increased human ignitions. Others suggest accumulating surface fuels due to a century of fire suppression. Others argue landscape changes and invasive grasses have amplified the amount of easily ignited vegetation, while still others blame climate change. What’s the Sage Grouse connection? Like human communities, the Sage Grouse’s habitat is being threatened by fast spreading wildfires, and that increase in bigger wildfires in sagebrush country is due to invading annual grasses, like cheatgrass.
Historically hot dry sagebrush habitat rarely burned (just once every 60-100 years) because slow growing, patchy sagebrush only provides scant surface fuels incapable of supporting large and frequent fires. But the invasion of introduced annual grasses, like cheatgrass, has changed all that. As one wildlife researcher lamented, “The color of Nevada has changed from a sagebrush silver gray to a cheatgrass tawny brown since the 1990s”. Likewise, in the 1800s California’s hills were covered with perennial grasses that stayed green during the summer. Now California’s hills are golden brown as highly flammable annual grasses have taken over.
Cheat grass-dominated sagebrush habitat now burns every 3-5 years, up to 20 times more frequently than historic natural conditions. Extensive research on the effects of cheat grass found habitats with high cheat grass abundance are “twice as likely to burn as those with low abundance, and four times more likely to burn multiple times between 2000-2015.” What makes cheatgrass such a problem?
Invading annual grasses germinate earlier in the season and deprive the later-germinating native grasses of needed moisture. These foreign grasses die after setting seed, leaving highly flammable fuels that can burn much earlier in the year and thus extend the fire season. Eleven of the USA’s 50 biggest fires in last 20 years have been in Great Basin sagebrush habitats, where invasive cheatgrass is spreading. Nevada’s largest fire was the 2018 Martin Fire. Rapidly spreading through the cheat grass, it burned 439,000 acres, a burned area rivaling California’s largest fires in recorded history.
The 2012 Rush Fire was California’s 4th largest fire since 1932, burning 272,000 acres of sagebrush habitat in northeastern California. It then continued to spread burning an additional 43,000 acres in Nevada. The 2018 Carr Fire was California’s 7thlargest fire and threatened the town of Redding, California. It started when a towed trailer blew a tire causing its wheel rim to scrape the asphalt. The resulting sparks were enough to ignite roadside grasses. Grassfires then carried the flames into the shrublands and forests, where burning grasses served as kindling to ignite less-flammable trees. Likewise, grasses were critical in spreading northern California’s biggest fires. In southern California, as humans ignite more and more fires, shrublands are being converted to more flammable grasslands.
Wildfire experts classify grasses as 1-hour fine fuels, meaning dead grass becomes highly flammable with just one hour of warm dry conditions. When experts estimate impending fire danger, they calculate the extent of a region’s fine fuels to determine how fast a fire will spread. The amount of small diameter fuels like grasses that can dry out in an hour, as well as twigs and small branches that dry out within 10 to 100 hours of dry weather, determine how fast the winds will spread a fire. It does not matter if it was wet and cool, or hot and dry during previous weeks or years. Just one hour of warm dry fire weather sets the stage for an explosive grass fire. Decades of climate change are totally irrelevant.
Some scientists point out that certain logging practices also spread “invasive grasses”. For that reason, California’s Democrat congressman, Ro Khanna, has been arguing that the U.S. Forest Service policy to clear cut after a wildfire is making California’s forest fires spread faster and burn hotter by increasing the forest floor’s flammable debris. Khanna warns, “Because we don’t have the right science, it is costing us lives, and that is the urgency of getting this right.”
Bad analyses promote bad remedies and blaming climate change has distracted people from real solutions. The “cheatgrass” problem will continue to cause bigger fast-moving fires no matter how the climate changes. But there are several tactics that could provide better remedies. Holistic grazing that targets annual grasses before they set seed is one tactic. Better management of surface fuels via prescribed burns is another, as well as more careful logging practices. And re-seeding habitat with native perennial grasses or sagebrush could help shift the competitive balance away from cheatgrass. In combination with limiting human ignitions, (see part 2), all those tactics may ensure healthy populations of Sage Grouse living alongside safer human communities.
Jim Steele is Director emeritus of San Francisco State’s Sierra Nevada Field Campus and authored Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism