Fire Starter Grass: Cheatgrass Linked to Increase in Great Basin Fire Events

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Cheatgrass has a tendency to form mats and monocultures. Image Credit: US Army Environmental Command / CC by 2.0

Cheatgrass is a Natural Fire Starter

In the last decade, the grass is implicated in 39 of the 50 largest fires in the Great Basin. It tends to form monocultures, or thick mats of grass within native ecosystems.

When the grass dies off early in the season, it provides a ready-made firestarter that can ignite these ecosystems.

Cheatgrass invasion also encourages the spread of a fire: fires in cheatgrass tend to be larger than fires in the Great Basin’s native ecosystems.

Balch also tells us that the phenomenon of a fire cycle focused on an invasive grass is not unique to the Great Basin of the United States.

It’s happening in Australia, in the US Southeast, and in other areas around the world.

The grass species may be different, but the monocultures that they create are similar, as are the fire regimes.

Controlling the Spread of Cheatgrass

What are the implications of the study for cheatgrass management? Unfortunately, there are no easy ways to control the spread of the grass.

Grazing can reduce cheatgrass, but the grass is not as nutritious as native species. Burning the grass before it spreads its seeds shows some promise as well, but this involves intensive management. Since cheatgrass enjoys very wet and very dry conditions, it’s well-placed to adapt to shifts in climate.

It also bounces back well from a fire cycle, so fire can promote further increases in cheatgrass. At the moment, this grass is a hardy invasive that’s skilled at spreading. While remote sensing data can track the grass and help managers understand why it’s spreading, there are still no easy solutions for cheatgrass control.

Resources

Jennifer K. Balch, J.Bradley, B., D’Antonio, C., Gómez-Dans, J. Introduced annual grass increases regional fire activity across the arid western USA (1980–2009). (2012). Accessed December 24, 2012.

Jennifer Balch. Personal Interview. (2012).

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