RICHLAND, Wash. — However odd it may seem, a rainy spring is worrying firefighters and range and forest managers in much of Eastern Washington, especially in areas infested by cheatgrass.
Wet weather has led to an abundant growth of cheatgrass, an invasive species, and other plants that are likely to become tinder-dry as early as next month, said Steven O. Link, a botany professor at Washington State University-Tri-Cities.
On Thursday, during a tour of the Hanford Reach National Monument, Link paused beside one large patch of cheatgrass beneath a tower carrying high-voltage electrical lines and called it “the killer of beauty.”
“It destroys our natural ecosystems,” he said.
Link, who recently published a study of the relationship between hot-burning range fires and cheatgrass, concluded that the it should be eradicated and replaced with native grasses and shrubs on more than 100 million acres across the western United States.
Cheatgrass, which arrived with imported wheat seed in the late 1800s, chokes out native species such as bunchgrass that are more fire resistant, he said.
“Bunchgrass is in bunches and there is dirt between it,” he said. “See the cheatgrass along the roadway? That’s a continual mat of fuel.”
On the 195,000-acre Hanford Reach, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials estimate 45,000 acres are at high risk for fires because of cheatgrass. Since 2000, about 50 fires have burned more than 95,000 acres of prime shrub steppe habitat on the national monument.
Link recommends application of a a pre-emergent herbicide to kill cheatgrass seeds, followed by the planting of bunchgrass and similar native ground cover. He estimated the cost at $300 to $400 an acre but added that the move could reduce both the frequency and intensity of range fires drastically.
Fires hit areas taken over by cheatgrass about every five years, compared with smaller fires about once in 75 years in areas with native vegetation, he said.
Hanford Reach project manager Greg Hughes said the monument would have about 30 firefighters and a small plane to help control wildfires this summer after spending $10 million to rehabilitate fire-scorched land.
“We can keep reacting to more frequent and higher intensity fires and rehab after the fact,” Hughes said, “or we can put some healthy shrub steppe initiatives together.”