USA — U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell this week released the initial plan for a new wildfire-fighting strategy to protect a wide swath of sagebrush country — much of it in the area known as the Great Basin — that supports cattle ranching and is home to a struggling bird species.
The intent of the strategy, released Tuesday, is to protect greater sage grouse habitat while contending with fires that have been especially destructive in the Great Basin region of Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California. The previous strategy didn’t call for specific efforts to protect the habitat.
The 27-page report calls for protecting areas most at risk by using veteran crews, rural fire departments and fire protection associations made up of ranchers who can respond quickly.
The Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center, which assigns resources throughout the nation during wildfire season, is already adopting the new strategies. One of them is a plan to position fire crews in the Great Basin ahead of fire season.
“That’s the key thing that we will be doing differently,” said Randy Eardley, a Fire Center spokesman. Previously, he said, fire crews only responded — sometimes from great distances — once wildfires had started and spread. “If we have more crews available in the area, then, yes, it could be very effective,” he said.
The plan heading into the 2015 wildfire season also calls for accelerating efforts to restore burned rangelands by developing a strategy for storing and distributing locally adapted seeds
The plan is good news for ranchers like Bill Wilber of the Drewsy Ranch southeast of Burns.
In July 2014, Wilber woke to the sound of lightning striking along the ridge lines above his family’s sprawling 10,000-acre cattle ranch.
For the next several days, he and other family members watched as what came to be known as the Buzzard Complex of fires raced across more than 400,000 acres of sagebrush, junipers and the invasive plant species called cheatgrass on steep, rocky hillsides. The flames hop-scotched the high desert in a mosaic of burned and unburned patches.
The Drewsy ranch defines the northern boundary of the 200,000-square-mile Great Basin across Nevada, half of Utah, and sections of Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and California.
Eventually, nearly three dozen of the ranch’s cattle and calves would die either from burns, smoke inhalation or have to be put-down due to the extent of their injuries. The complex of fires was the largest range fire since 2012’s Long Draw fire that burned 557,648 acres in southeastern Oregon — considered the most extensive in Oregon’s modern history.
The Buzzard complex –named for local landmark Buzzard Butte — spared some areas, but other spots burned so hot and fast that 100-year-old junipers went up like Roman candles, a circular carpet of ash at their base.
After the fire burned itself out, Wilber pointed to areas where cheatgrass had been removed by BLM scientist and areas replanted with native species. In some places, the native grasses were untouched by the flames.
On their website, Utah State University scientists explain how cheatgrass can rapidly replace native species in this zone, causing fires to burn hotter and longer.
“Cheatgrass and other invasive species have contributed to making rangeland fire one of the greatest threats in the Great Basin — not only to sagebrush habitat, but to wildlife, ranching, and other economic activities that depend on a healthy landscape,” Jewell said. “As we head into the 2015 fire season, the actions recommended in this report will help ensure that our preparedness, response and recovery strategies better align with the threats facing the West.”
Kayli Hanley, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, called the Interior Department report released Tuesday “encouraging and necessary.”
“Ranchers have been at the forefront of both fighting wildfires and taking measures to prevent them in order to promote Sage Grouse recovery and protect their lands and livestock,” Hanley said.
Highlights of the plan include:
– Design an integrated response to range fires, giving priority to land most at risk from rangeland fires and invasive species. Also, increase training of rural and volunteer firefighters. – Accelerate efforts to restore rangeland damaged by wildfire by replanting native species. – Create a seed bank, saving “genetically appropriate and locally adapted seed” for replanting.