Cheatgrass may raise wildfire danger again

Cheatgrassmay raise wildfire danger again

12 March 2008

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Utah, USA — The delicious sweet smell of early-spring blooms on Dixie’sapricot trees is a welcome reminder that winter is over, but there’s also a hintof danger sprouting in southern Utah’s rangelands and along its roadways.

Cheatgrass, an invasive weed well known for fueling fast-moving wildfireswith catastrophic results, is beginning to appear in southern Utah. Cheatgrass,which “grows like crazy,” starts to green-up and grow taller from lateFebruary through early April, said Sheldon Wimmer, state fire management officerwith the Utah Bureau of Land Management.

“We’ve been living in a drought for the last 10 years and this is thefirst normal winter we’ve had in a while,” Wimmer said. “If it doesn’theat up too fast, we could see a large crop of cheatgrass this year.”

That could prove troublesome in more ways than one, he said. Fightingwildfires fueled by invasive weeds like cheatgrass is expensive and dangerouswork. Cheatgrass dries quickly, ignites easily and helps wildfires move rapidly.During 2007, wildfires burned a staggering 600,000 acres of public, state andprivate lands throughout Utah, double the amount that burned in 2006, accordingto the BLM.

The state’s largest wildfire, the 2007 Milford Flat fire, consumed 350,000 acres,killed four people, destroyed hundreds of cattle and sheep, put dozens ofranchers out of business, devastated families, and threatened public safety fromdust and ash clouds created by winds after the fires were knocked down. No onewants a repeat of that, Wimmer said.

“We spent $43 million just in reseeding efforts alone and another $20million in fire suppression. We are working closely with the state and puttingour resources in the appropriate places to get the best possible result,”he said. “But it’s an enormous task.”

Rehabilitating rangeland, improving watersheds and preventing the growth ofinvasive weeds is a major concern for land managers throughout the state, saidBill Hopkin, director of the Grazing Improvement Program for the Utah Departmentof Agriculture and Food.

Improving the health of Utah’s rangelands through the use of more effectivegrazing and management practices will also help the state gain the upper handover invasive plants like cheatgrass, Hopkin said.

And while a $2 million budget doesn’t go far enough when it comes to proposedrestoration projects, it’s a good start, he said.

“Most of our ranchers work on public land and it’s not financiallyfeasible for them to do this by themselves,” Hopkin said. “By usinggrazing schemes like controlling the time and timing of grazing, it doesn’t costthe rancher anything. What it does do is allow the land to rest and for nativeplants to have a chance to reproduce.”

Reseeding and rehabilitation efforts are spread throughout the state withprojects concentrated in areas devastated by wildfires last year. The last dayto seed with any hope of success is April 15, according to a report issued byUtah Partners for Conservation and Development.

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