Friday, February 4, 2011

Breaking the Cycle of Fire on the Range



In fire country's Ground Zero,Land Managers struggle to fight cheatgrass
BOISE–Cheatgrass remains public enemy number one on the Western Range. That’s the word from Rangeland managers who met in Boise this week to address the invasive scourge of the West.

Ranchers, the Bureau of Land Management, Conservation groups and Firefighters met at a symposium called 'How Collaborative Resource Management Can Break the Current Fire Cycle' All attending parties agree that cheatgrass continues to makes western rangelands susceptible to devastating wildfire.

Specifically cheatgrass burns hotter, grows thicker and dries out faster than native plants that once inhabited the western range. Cheat grass is native of Russia, and it's been a problem on the range since the late 1800's.

"All it takes is a cigarette butt, a hot catalytic converter on the bottom of a truck or even dry lightning and cheatgrass explodes like gasoline, burning fast, hot and even destroying normally fire resistant sagebrush.” said Idaho Farm Bureau’s Range Specialist Wally Butler.

"It’s important to get on these fires quickly,"said Idaho BLM Director Steve Ellis. “We prioritize initial attack with a priority on urban interface. We have limited resources we also want to prioritize certain eco-systems like Sage Grouse habitat. Also we have to emphasize rehabilitation after the fire, use more natives, but the challenge we have is the competition with cheatgrass, and that affects the chance of success.”

Lance Okeson of the BLM told the conference that rehabilitating rangeland is labor intensive and expensive, crews replant sagebrush but it takes up decades before the sage produce seeds that take hold on land under constant threat of fire.

Fire maps just released at the conference reveal that the nation’s most fire-vulnerable rangeland are the areas around Boise. The maps show large wildfire locations in and around the I-84 corridor and was tagged the most likely area to burn in the entire United States.

For good reason, cheatgrass thrives at lower elevations up to 5000 feet, furthermore Southwest Idaho is a magnet for severe lighting not to mention the thousands of acres of cheat grass along fuel-loaded I-84; where a few times a year a careless motorist starts a catastrophic wildfire.

James Young, a retired USDA scientist wrote the book "Cheatgrass: Fire and Forage on the Range." He told the conference that the goal of progressive fire managers is to identify fire, fuel and vegetation management methods then conserve sage brush habitats with hopes of breaking the cycle of fire frequency.

Land managers have set up a range laboratory a 117,000 acre stretch of land northeast of Interstate 84, between Blacks Creek and Mountain Home, it'll serve as a proving ground to test theories, native and unnative plants that could one day crowd out cheat grass, or at least lessen the impacts of the species.

While nothing can be done about lightning and severe storms, instead range managers discussed things they can do, like planting the fire resistant plants, target grazing to reduce fuel loading and even mechanical treatments.

Last year Fire managers started planting fire-resistant plants along the edge of Interstate 84, Okeson said. They’re now looking at a hodge-podge of application areas in and around that 117,000-acre zone. One day work pioneered here could help the fire ravaged west and save lives along the urban interface.

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