Chemical Retardant Used to Fight Wildfires Could Pose Harm, Group Says

PHOENIX – Fire retardant is one tool in battling wildfires, including the Woodbury Fire east of Mesa. But is the mixture of water and chemicals, including thickening agents, a danger to people and the environment?

Dolores Garcia, a spokeswoman with the Bureau of Land Management office in Phoenix, said retardant is crucial in areas where it’s difficult to deploy firefighters quickly.

“We utilize it to help slow the progress, especially in areas that may be threatened, such as our wildland-urban interface,” Garcia said.

-Video Report by Amanda Slee/Cronkite News

Wildland-urban interfaces are transitional areas where homes are built near land prone to fires. Being on the edge of the wildlands, these areas require quick responses to maintain safety.

The retardant is dyed red to make the line visible when dropped from tanker planes. Garcia said there are plenty of factors to consider when dropping the retardant, such as proximity to rivers and streams.

The size of the air tanker used is determined by the target area to be covered.

It can take 15 to 20 minutes to drop retardant. The process involves sending out a lead plane to evaluate the situation, doing a practice run and releasing a small line of smoke across the area. The tanker then drops the retardant along that smoke line.

The substance does have its opponents, including the nonprofit group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics in Eugene, Oregon. The organization has filed lawsuits in the past over the issue.

Its members are current and former Forest Service employees, other government resource managers and environmental activists. The organization’s stated focus is to protect national forests and “to reform the U.S. Forest Service by advocating environmental ethics, educating citizens, and defending whistleblowers,” according to its website.

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Andy Stahl, the group’s executive director, said that using fire retardant endangers fish, people and rare plants.

“We have two concerns when it comes to fire retardant,” Stahl said. “One is that it is very dangerous for the pilots that deliver it. The second is that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t actually make a difference in the final outcome of the fires.”

Garcia acknowledged that fire retardant can potentially have adverse effects.

“There may be areas that may have some immediate sensitivity to some of the chemicals in there, mostly ammonium sulfate salts,” Garcia said. “But the long-term effect of wildfire through an area may be more detrimental.”

Ammonium sulfate, used as a dough strengthener and fertilizer for alkaline soils, is generally recognized as safe by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

The fertilizing nature of fire retardant is what concerns the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

“That’s great if you want to grow corn and soybeans,” Stahl said. “But if you’re trying to protect native species’ habitats, it’s not good to change the habitat.”

The Forest Service has improved its protocols for using fire retardant in recent years, including that retardant can’t be dropped within a certain distance of a waterway. The change came after a U.S. District Court in Montana found in 2010 that the agency’s environmental review of the practice violated the National Environmental Policy Act.

Tanner Puckett contributed to this story.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Buffelgrass Blues: Phoenix Campaign Kicks Off to Combat an Invasive Species

PHOENIX – Every week, thousands of hikers climb Piestewa Peak to take in the views and get in some exercise. In early April, hikers started to see plants splashed with bright blue chalk.

It’s part of an effort to raise awareness about buffelgrass, an invasive species that worsens a problem many Arizonans are already familiar with. Buffelgrass makes excellent kindling for summer fires, and it’s prone to burning fast, hot, and often.

Ranchers introduced the shrubby grass into Arizona in the late 1930s, hoping it would reduce soil erosion and feed cattle. The plant took off in Tucson, and has spread to Pinal, Maricopa and Yuma counties in the decades since. It also has established itself from California to Florida and has been found in New York and Hawaii, the National Park Service says.

Hikers going up Piestewa Peak in north-central Phoenix will see buffelgrass marked with nontoxic blue chalk to draw attention to this invasive species. Buffelgrass was brought to Arizona in the late 1930s from South Africa to control soil erosion and feed livestock. (Photo by Gabrielle Olivera/Cronkite News)

Now the Buffelgrass Blues campaign aims to raise awareness about the problems with buffelgrass. The Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department, the Desert Botanical Garden and the Central Arizona Conservation Alliance are all involved in the effort. Organizers hope to highlight how Pennisetum ciliare, which is native to South Africa, is outcompeting native plants for water and eliminating food sources for native wildlife, including desert tortoises.

Buffelgrass produces many seeds, which are easily spread by wind and water, according to the National Park Service. In addition, each seed has bristles that allow it to hitch a ride on passing humans and animals.

“This grass can have a lot of negative impacts on this landscape,” said Annia Quiroz, with the Buffelgrass Blues campaign. “First and foremost is fire. This grass carries the fireload that is very heavy, and can burn up to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, which is pretty much in the same range as lava.”

Since the campaign launched last fall, dozens of volunteers have attended Buffelgrass Bootcamps, where volunteers and Phoenix park rangers learn how to use an app called Collector to map areas where buffelgrass is prevalent so it can be removed on “pulling days.”

Pulling is a bit of a misnomer, though, because removing buffelgrass properly requires a pickax and hours of painstaking labor. Clearing a 10-by-10 foot patch of buffelgrass is a three hour process.

Because it’s such a strenuous process, Buffelgrass Blues won’t hold any pulling days until the fall when it cools down. Buffelgrass Bootcamps and mapping days still will take place over the summer, however.

For removal in the most heavily infested areas, options are limited. There’s chemical spraying by helicopters and manually removal the plants, Quiroz said. But both are expensive and disrupt the local wildlife she explained.

There’s a new education campaign around Piestewa Peak to raise awareness about buffelgrass, which is crowding out native plants and wildlife. It also poses a huge fire risk. (Photo courtesy of Annia Quiroz)

“It’s up to the cities to best determine how they want to handle their invasives problem,” she said.

Sandy Bahr, the chapter president of the Sierra Club of Arizona, has volunteered to remove buffelgrass in the past.

“It will crowd out other plants and before you know it, you have a field of buffelgrass instead of our beautiful Sonoran Desert vegetation, and also creates unnatural fire conditions,” Bahr said. “I guess it’s just a reminder that we need to be careful about what we bring into our environment.”

Other organizations are joining in. The McDowell Sonoran Conservancy and Maricopa County Parks and Recreation also are involved with Buffelgrass Blues. Maricopa County Parks and Recreation calls their program Desert Defenders, but it’s the same training with the same app.

Quiroz will lead a training session for the county at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 1, at the White Tank Mountain Regional Park Nature Center.

Colorado Testing Self-Driving Vehicles to Aid in Fighting Fires

DENVER – Colorado is testing out self-driving ATVs to assist wildland firefighters at work. The state is working with Honda to test out the company’s emerging technology.

Garrett Seddon is with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. He said firefighters often need to carry up to 50 pounds of equipment to a fire line.

“So where this vehicle would come in handy,” Seddon said, “is reducing that stress and fatigue on the firefighters so when they get to the fire line they can focus on the fire.”

A self-driving ATV is tested at a burn scar area. (Photo courtesy Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control)

The autonomous all-terrain vehicles could be equipped with a basket to haul equipment, a tank and hose for extra water, and advanced medical supplies.

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“Medical supplies are really heavy,” said Seddon, “and when a firefighter gets hurt, having that somewhere nearby staged or having it with the fire crew has that potential lifesaving capability.”

Seddon said the technology could be useful for other industries too. For example, it could mow the grass between solar panels in a solar field, or navigate agricultural fields.

A farmer could potentially put a crop sprayer on it or even a robotic arm to pick fruit. “So it’s really up the industry on how they want to put attachments on theirs,” he said.

Seddon said the vehicle did well when they tested it over boulders, fallen trees, and steep terrain on Colorado’s western slopes. He said Honda will likely do more testing this summer before the vehicle is offered for commercial sales.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUER in Salt Lake City, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

SoCal’s Super Green Spring May Pose a Red Hot Danger

LOS ANGELES – There are a lot of reasons to give thanks to Southern California’s rainy season:

We’re free of drought conditions.

We got to see some epic super blooms.

Our hills have been covered in lush green plants for months.

But then there’s the not-so-silver lining: we may be primed to burn.

For now, things look good, said Jessica Gardetto, spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center. With moisture levels still high, there’s not a huge risk of fires igniting and growing out of control.

But the rains will inevitably end.

“That risk,” she said, “is going to increase when all these grasses and fuels dry out and become ready to burn.”

Ojai resident Karin Dron’s house overlooks the valley below. (Photo by Jacob Margolis/LAist)

The last time we had similar conditions was in the spring of 2017.

“I don’t remember it being quite as lush as this year with either the flowers or the vegetation, but it was plenty green and it was just so nice to see things starting to recover,” said Ojai resident Karin Dron, sitting on the porch of her stone house.

Surrounded by bright green grass on all sides, there is little evidence — besides a few blackened trees — that one of the worst fires in state history tore through her yard just a few years ago.

Dron’s stone house, built in the 1930s, is now surrounded by greenery again after the Thomas Fire. (Photo by Jacob Margolis/LAist)

2017: A Perfect Year for Fire

“Extra precipitation in winter 2016 to 2017 helped to grow a bunch of new fuel,” said Park Williams, bio-climatologist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

“On top of there being a whole bunch of new growth … the summer of 2017 was record-breaking, or near-record-breaking, across essentially all of the western United States, in terms of temperature.”

Which meant that abundance of new growth dried out quickly and, because of a delayed rainy season, stayed dry.

Grasses were the first to lose their moisture, followed by shrubs and old growth chapparal that had gone unburned for a long time and survived years of low precipitation during the drought.

That created ideal conditions for a big fire.

The Thomas Fire was sparked by SoCal Edison’s power lines and then fueled by Santa Ana winds (which peak in fall and winter).

A wet winter 2017 provided fuel for fires that fall

Karin Dron watched as it consumed nearly her entire property, sparing only the home that had been there since the 1930s.

“There were a lineup of ten firetrucks on my driveway, which is about a quarter of a mile, and they were watching it burn,” she said.

More than 281 thousand acres burned and 10,000 structures were destroyed.

Ojai resident Karin Dron watched as the Thomas Fire tore through her property in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Karin Dron)

2019: It’s Going to Burn, Right?

On a recent trip into the San Gabriel Mountains, patrol captain Alberto Ortega took samples of shrubs to measure moisture levels, something that he now has to do year-round.

For now, they are moist.

But it won’t last. Plants are going to dry. How quickly that happens depends on how hot things get this spring and summer. And how long they stay dry depends on when our rainy season shows up.

“This is going to help us, basically at least at the beginning of the year,” Ortega said, explaining that higher moisture levels make it easier to extinguish fires when they start.

Alberto Ortega of the U.S. Forest Service takes fuel moisture samples in the San Gabriel Mountains. (Photo by Jacob Margolis/LAist)
Cutting moisture samples to collect data now must be done year-round. (Photo by Jacob Margolis/LAist)

“Our fire season started extending longer and longer,” he said. “And we needed that fuel moisture sample for us to fight fire. You probably can see in the last 10-15 years, things are changing with the plants.”

Southern California’s hillsides exploded into green after this winter’s rains

Is This Climate Change?

As climate change progresses, temperatures will continue to rise, meaning greater rates of evapotranspiration that will cause plants to dry out faster.

“I think maybe the entire stretch from 2012 to 2017 could be seen as a harbinger,” said Williams, who’s written extensively about climate change on the west coast.

We could also see an increased variability in rainfall, meaning that rain could come in short intense bursts followed by long periods of dryness. That matters because when we miss out on deep sustained soakings during our wet season, recovery from dry periods is more difficult.

Another concern: indications that that the rainy season could keep showing up late.

It’s unclear how the Santa Ana winds will be impacted, though they’re not expected to worsen.

“Warming has been so extreme in California over the last century that every summer is hot and dry enough to support fire, no matter how wet this past winter was,” said Williams.

California has had a major wildfire every year for the past seven years, and the past five summers have been the warmest on record.

Ojai resident Karin Dron’s property was destroyed by the Thomas Fire in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Karin Dron)
“We really don’t know what’s coming,” said Ojai resident Karen Dron. (Photo by Jacob Margolis/LAist)

It’s Always Fire Season

Regardless of what happens, Dron always has fire in the back of her mind.

She lost four buildings on her Ojai property during the Thomas Fire.

We are on her porch, overlooking the Ojai valley below. There is no sign of a burned-out moonscape. Thanks to the rain, we are surrounded instead, by tall, beautiful, green grasses.

“It is gorgeous and we’re loving this spring. It’s certainly a super bloom and the wildflowers are great,” she said. “But yes, we’re probably going to have to do multiple fire clearances and we’re going to have to keep doing it … and it’s a little worrisome. That’s all I can say. We really don’t know what’s coming.”

Special Elemental Report: Fire in the Neighborhood
As increasing numbers of homes are being built in the wild urban interface in Arizona, California and Colorado, the risk that forest fires pose to people and property increases, too.

In California, Wet Winters No Longer Enough to Dampen Wildfires

PHOENIX – Historically, a wet winter in California meant a mild fire season. But a new study in the journal “PNAS” suggests moisture supplied by the jet stream may no longer be enough.

The heavy California wet seasons of 2016 and 2017 brought flooding to the drought-stressed state but failed to dampen its disastrous wildfire season.

Regional climate trends suggest one troubling reason: Since 1904, winter moisture brought by the North Pacific jet stream has mitigated wildfires less and less; since 1977, it appears to exert no influence at all.

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Co-author Valerie Trouet of University of Arizona used tree ring data to reconstruct the jet stream and fire activity.

“That kind of combination of a wet winter and a severe fire season, we don’t see that prior to the 20th century. All of the big fire years happened after dry winters, not after wet winters.”

The timing suggests fire suppression practices and climate change as partial explanations.

Before the advent of 20th century fire suppression strategies, said Trouet, fires occurred in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and in California every 5-10 years, clearing out the brush but only scarring the trees.

“It’s very difficult to find any fire scars at all in the 20th century. We’ve been very, very effective in putting out fires and, as a result, the underbrush is no longer killed by small fire,” she said.

Even with a wet winter, those fuels can dry by fire season and fuel larger, hotter and harder-to-control blazes.

That cycle could worsen if, as experts predict, climate change drives up temperatures in the region.

Why do we keep building houses in places that burn down?

It’s a real-estate paradox: The most desirable places to live also are among the most susceptible to wildfires.

Mansions in the Santa Monica Mountains, tiny cabins tucked into the Angeles National Forest and homes at the edges of subdivisions all are beautiful because they’re surrounded by undeveloped land. But that land is a tinderbox.

Every year in California, there seems to be a bigger, crazier, more destructive wildfire. But every year, new houses go up in their path. And it’s not just some houses, but thousands of houses — more than 85,000 new houses in high fire risk areas in Los Angeles County alone, from 1990 to 2010.

Shouldn’t we know better by now? Why do we keep building houses in places that are likely to burn? I’ve reported countless wildfires over the years and this question continues to come up.

To answer it, I examined a housing development proposed for an undeveloped swath of land in Orange County north of Yorba Linda. Esperanza Hills is a fancy development: 340 multimillion-dollar homes on a gated, dead-end street.

It definitely fits the definition of high-risk – 10 years ago, a wildfire completely scorched the land Esperanza Hills would be built on. And Cal Fire – the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection – calls the entire site a “very high fire hazard severity zone,” a wonky term for an area that’s likely to burn again in the next 30 to 50 years.

That matters because fire ecologists say where – and not how – you build your house is the most important factor in determining whether it will burn.

An artist’s rendering of the entrance to Esperanza Hills, a high-end development proposed for a high fire risk area north of Yorba Linda, Calif. (Courtesy Yorba Linda Estates LLC via Orange County Board of Supervisors)
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“There are many cases where you can do everything right, but if you’re in a very risky location, your house can burn down,” said fire ecologist Alexandra Syphard, who has been studying wildfires for 20 years.

Building with modern, fire-resistant materials, clearing 100 feet or more of brush from around your house — those things can help, but if you put your house in a fire-prone place, Syphard says, such measures are mere Band-Aids.

‘THE MOST DANGEROUS SITE YOU COULD PICK’

On Nov. 15, 2008, a small brush fire started near California State Route 91, which lies in a corridor for Santa Ana winds. The fire raced west, connected with another blaze and torched the entire Esperanza Hills site before moving south into Yorba Linda and burning 381 homes. The Freeway Complex Fire was one of the most destructive in Orange County history.

The evacuation was chaotic, recalls Ed Schumann, who was among those who lost their homes. Streets were gridlocked. Kids were running down the sidewalks with their pets. At one point, a teenage boy got out of his car to direct traffic because no one else was doing it.

To Schumann and other Yorba Linda residents, the idea of adding 340 houses and residents and vehicles to that mess is frightening.

“Evacuating that many more people with the same infrastructure, it’s a scary thought,” he said.

It’s why Kevin Johnson, a lawyer for one of the environmental groups that sued over the Esperanza Hills project, delaying it for years, calls the location “probably the most dangerous site in Southern California you could pick to put 340 new families into.”

MEET THE DEVELOPER

So, why would anyone want to build in such a risky place? I reached out to the developer behind the project, Douglas Wymore.

He has his reasons. First, he believes he can build these houses, on this site, safely.

“I disagree with somebody that just comes in and says, ‘Oh, anytime that you put something next to an open-space area that’s a very high fire (hazard) zone, you can’t protect it,’” he said. “I think the bottom line is you can mitigate it, you can protect it.”

And Wymore is doing a lot to protect it. All the houses will be “hardened” – in other words, built using fire-resistant materials as required by state building code, including sprinklers in the attic.

He’s planning at least 170 feet of defensible space around the homes. There will be two on-site water tanks for firefighting. And two entrances, one for emergencies, one for everyday use (local residents say this is insufficient, and point to the multiple tight turns on the main entrance, but Wymore is doing what is required under the county’s fire standards).

Second, by building modern, fire-resistant homes in the path of a wildfire, Wymore believes he is protecting everyone else in the area whose houses may not be up to the latest building codes. His project, he contends, will act as a fire buffer for older, more flammable homes.

And third, he says, people want to live here.

“The bottom line is, there’s a demand for people that want to live in those areas for obvious reasons,” Wymore said. “And so if you’re going to take on the task of satisfying that demand and building a project, I think you have a responsibility to make sure you do what’s necessary to make your development safe.”

MONEY MONEY MONEY

That’s why the developer wants to build. But given the obvious risks, why would the Orange County Board of Supervisors approve this project?

Well, to start, it will generate $8.25 million a year in property taxes. And since voters passed Proposition 13 in California in 1978, which limited how much property tax bills can go up each year, cities and counties haven’t seen their tax revenue increase as housing values rise.

“Prop 13 handcuffs local jurisdictions in finding additional revenue,” said Howard Penn, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League. “They can raise sales tax or build more homes. There’s not a lot of ways to get more revenue.”

It’s also worth mentioning that since 2011, Wymore has donated nearly $50,000 to the re-election campaigns of several members of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, none of whom would talk to me for this story.

Wymore was frank about why: “If you put political donations in, whether those people agree with you or don’t agree with you, they will at least give you an opportunity to sit down with them and listen. Which maybe they would and maybe they wouldn’t do otherwise.”

Melanie Schlotterbeck, a consultant for the non-profit Hills for Everyone, shows the history of fires in the Yorba Linda area. (Photo by James Bernal for KPCC)

THE DECIDERS

Although none of the Orange County supervisors wanted to talk, you can get a pretty good sense of why most of them support it from things they said at previous public meetings about the development. One big reason is the classic private property rights argument: Wymore owns the land, and he should be able to develop it as he sees fit.

“I don’t have any reason to now deprive someone of the right to use their property,” Chairman Andrew Do said at a May 2017 meeting.

Another big reason? The fire department had given Esperanza Hills the green light.

“If the fire department is satisfied, I’m not inclined to argue with them. I’m not a fireman,” Supervisor Shawn Nelson said.

BUT WHY WAS THE FIRE DEPARTMENT SATISFIED?

Well, according to deputy fire marshal Timothy Kerbrat of the Orange County Fire Authority, the preliminary plans for Esperanza Hills met all the state and local requirements for building in a high-risk area.

“Do they have access, do they have water, do they have defensible space, do they have hardened structures that they can protect? Are all those things occuring? And in the Esperanza project, that’s the things that I’m seeing. That it’s occurring,” he said.

Although the supervisors approved the project in May 2017, an Orange County environmental group sued and a judge overturned the approval, which is why Esperanza Hills was back in front of supervisors again on Sept. 25. And, despite continued opposition from some homeowners, the board approved the project 4-1 – prompting one homeowner to shout, “See you in court!”

WHO PAYS? WE PAY

There’s another factor here: The Orange County Fire Authority will get just more than $1 million a year in revenue from the Esperanza Hills project.

And if a large wildfire breaks out, the agency likely won’t have to spend much of its own money to protect this neighborhood. That’s because state and federal agencies largely reimburse local fire departments for the costs of firefighting.

Back in 2008, for example, the Orange County Fire Authority spent $2.3 million fighting the Freeway Complex Fire, but 94 percent of those costs were reimbursed.

“The irony is that we, as taxpayers, are paying for the protection of homes that are built in high-risk areas,” said Kimiko Barrett, a researcher at the Montana-based think tank Headwaters Economics.

You read that right: When a big fire breaks out and threatens houses built in risky places, you and I are the ones picking up the bill.

Kerbrat, the deputy fire marshal, staunchly denies that money or firefighting costs play any role in approving developments.

“I’ve never heard firefighters, or a fire agency, talk in that manner,” he said. “It’s not in our thought process. We don’t think of this as a business, for profit.”

A MORAL HAZARD

Barrett, however, calls the situation a moral hazard.

“The consequences actually aren’t borne by the people who are approving these developments,” she said.

And it’s not just Barretts theory: The Office of Inspector General agreed with that assessment in a 2006 report.

“If state and local agencies became more financially responsible for (wildland-urban interface) protection, it would likely encourage these agencies to more actively implement land use regulations that minimize risk to people and structures from wildfire,” they wrote.

But until this case of misaligned incentives changes, Barrett says we’re going to keep building in risky areas. Nearly 1 million new houses in California could be built in these areas before 2050.

This story is part of an Elemental series “Fire in the Neighborhood” about fire danger in cities and surrounding areas.

Invasive cheatgrass fuels Nevada’s worst wildfire, devastates sage grouse habitat

WINNEMUCCA, Nevada — Just hours after July 4th festivities had died down, Fred Stewart got a disturbing call from his neighbor.

“I think your ranch is on fire,” the neighbor told him.

Stewart checked and saw a small blaze heading toward his property, the historical Ninety-Six Ranch in northern Nevada’s Paradise Valley, which his family has worked for more than 150 years. Stewart opened gates so his cattle could get away from the approaching flames.

The next morning, though, the fire — likely touched off by fireworks or careless campers — was running wild across the public land the Stewarts had relied on to graze their cattle for more than a century.

“By then, there was nothing anyone could do,” Stewart said.

The Martin Fire ripped through dry vegetation – much of it invasive, quick-growing cheatgrass – to quickly become the largest blaze this season and the largest single fire in Nevada history. The fire, which is not yet fully contained, has burned more than 435,000 acres, or about 700 square miles. It not only has destroyed grazing areas, it has damaged large stretches of the Great Basin, a crucial ecosystem for the greater sage grouse, which has been a focal point of political wrangling because of its possible inclusion on the endangered species list.

A greater sage grouse male struts near Bridgeport, California. (Photo: Photo by Jeannie Stafford/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The fire had destroyed nearly all of the Ninety-Six Ranch’s 100,000 acres of grazing land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.

“It’s gone, it’s gone” Stewart said. “Riding across there, it feels like you’re on the moon.”

Federal land managers and rangeland ecologists expect the Martin Fire will affect grazing, wildlife and sagebrush habitat for as long as a decade.

“When you have a fire this large, the rehabilitation efforts are going to be pretty massive,” said Jessica Gardetto, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center.

They also said the fire is indicative of new dynamics on the range that leave more areas open to fire potential and make it possible for fires to grow faster and spread farther.

A spokesperson for the Martin Fire response team said there was 200 to 400 percent more fuel on the range because of a wet winter followed by a dry winter this year. And even though less-than-average snow fell on the Great Basin this year, there was enough precipitation in the spring, Gardetto noted, that more vegetation grew. But with an especially hot summer, much of the spring vegetation had dried up by the time the fire started.

“It’s creating a lot of extreme fire behavior that’s making these fires very difficult to control,” Gardetto said. “That’s why you’re seeing fires like the Martin Fire that just blow up.”

Cheatgrass outside of Winnemucca, Nevada, on July 11, near where the state’s largest single fire broke out in the morning hours of July 4. The invasive grass contributed to the fire’s intensity and rapid spread. (Photo by Daniel Rothberg/The Nevada Independent)

One reason the fire grew to such a large size was the presence of cheatgrass, a highly flammable invasive species that has overtaken much of the range in several Intermountain West states. Cheatgrass, which is native to Eurasia, was accidentally introduced to America through contaminated seed and straw packing material.

Once cheatgrass is dominant, in a sense, the damage is done. – Professor Erica Fleishman, Colorado State University

Cheatgrass, once it has grown in an area, is hard to eliminate. Its seeds are also resilient and grow in burnt areas. Although livestock can feed off of cheatgrass, ranchers prefer other grasses for cattle.

The Nevada Department of Agriculture had received reports of burns at six ranches.

Ranchers like Stewart, who saw nearly his entire grazing area burnt by the fire, will face tough decisions about how to operate in the coming months and even years. They might have to decide whether to sell some of their cattle or find empty grazing land in other parts of the state.

Through the federal government, some ranchers might be eligible for compensation if their cattle were engulfed or injured in the wildfire, or if the fire burnt their grazing allotments. At this point, there is no estimate for how many livestock or cattle have been killed during the fire.

“There will be a disruption in grazing on affected permittees,” said Sam Mori, a Tuscarora rancher and the president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association.

Mori said the fire is “as destructive as we are going to see in the Western United States.”

A huge fire on this range had been primed for years, he said, as more fuel was left on the range.

“This country was set up for an event like this,” Mori said.

The vast majority of the fire burned in sensitive habitat for sage grouse, and the blaze is likely to be a setback for sustaining habitat for the bird.

For years, federal regulators have been working on a conservation framework to boost dwindling populations of the bird and keep it off the endangered species list, which would devastate rural economies.

Sage grouse rely on the presence of sagebrush in the Great Basin for protection and food.

“When we have these anthropogenic fires, based largely around the fact that we’ve introduced cheatgrass, it becomes a tremendous challenge for the bird to reproduce,” said Brian Rutledge, the vice president and director of the Audubon Society’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative.

The concern, among many, is that wildfire will put more pressure on sage grouse populations, which could land the bird on the endangered species list when the federal government revisits the issue. It’s an outcome that many Westerners have worked to avoid for decades. A listing would mean the curtailment of many activities in rural counties, including mining and ranching.

The impact on sage grouse could depend, in part, on how the fire burned. Since the burn was not continuous — there was some land untouched — there might be some habitat within the 292 mile radius of the burn that is preserved, land managers said. Although land managers are still assessing the damage, the fire has likely affected mule deer, antelope and bighorn sheep.

The Bureau of Land Management said that the majority of the area is sage grouse habitat. And the Department of Wildlife said that they know for sure that the fire burned 29 active sage grouse mating areas, (known as leks) and 12 potentially active mating areas.

At a recent public meeting in Winnemucca, first responders said all of the parties affected by the fire, including ranchers and wildlife managers, will meet in the coming weeks to discuss how to rehabilitate the damaged ecosystems. They stressed they would take a collaborative process and undertake projects likely to include seeding and building new fences.

“This is going to be a very, very large project,” said Donovan Walker, a fire management officer.

But restoration can be difficult and expensive. Fleishman said cheatgrass seeds are so resilient it is hard to prevent the invasive species from growing and crowding out space for native grass.

“Restoration is possible in small areas with a lot of labor and financial resources,” she said.

Thad Heater, a wildlife biologist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services, said there have been some effective sagebrush restoration efforts. He pointed to areas burned by the Soda Fire, a devastating blaze that eliminated valuable sage grouse habitat in Idaho.

“It’s really bounced back well,” said Heater, who also works with grouse as the coordinator of the Sage Grouse Initiative. “You can get the habitat responses for wildlife by working together.”

In limited circumstances and on smaller scales, fires can benefit the range. Yet in the case of human-caused fires such as the Martin Fire, nearly everyone — ranchers, ecologists and land managers — agree they often destabilize the ecosystem and the activities that rely on it.

“It’s becoming a determining factor of whether the primary stewards of land — ranchers — can succeed or not,” said Rutledge, who works on sagebrush ecosystems with the Audubon Society. “It’s a human challenge as well as an avian challenge and an ecosystem challenge.”

This piece was first published in the Nevada Independent.

Climate change brings hotter, drier winds – ramping up intensity of wildfires in the West

LOS ANGELES – It seemed as if Southern California was ablaze in December 2017. Four big wildfires were chewing through wildlands from southern San Diego County to Santa Barbara, scorching hundreds of square miles and destroying or damaging thousands of homes.

It could be a sign of things to come. Many scientists think climate change is a major contributor of wildfires in California and across the nation, particularly in western states like Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and Utah.

“Wildfire is a really interesting sustainability issue,” said Alex Hall, a climate scientist with the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA. he also directs the Center for Climate Science and is with the university’s atmospheric and oceanic sciences department.

“For the past 200 years or so, we’ve been burning fossil fuels that has led to an increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” Hall said. “Greenhouse gases trap heat, and that has led to a steady warming of the planet that has been accelerating in recent decades. Fires are driven by dry and hot winds, and when winds become hotter and drier, that leads to greater fire risk.

“Climate change also … tends to dry out vegetation during our hot summers and it dries it out more as the climate warms more, and so that can create a greater risk for fire as well.”

Hall says it is a challenge trying to fight blazes where hillside wildlands and urban sprawl intersect. These are typically places in and around areas like Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix and Salt Lake City. LA is the worst of these cities, he says.

“What happened with the fires last season was a great example of what’s to come with fire,” Hall said. “We had a really, really big wet season in 2016-2017, and that led to a buildup of vegetation. That vegetation dried out over the course of a very hot summer in 2017, and then the rainy season did not arrive as it should have, and so by the time we got to December, we had these very hot and dry Santa Ana events that occurred, and that was the perfect condition for a very large fire.

“And climate change will increase the frequency of those types of events. Climate change increases the dryness of the winds when they occur. It increases the temperature of the winds when they occur, and it also increases the swings between very wet and dry years. We’re beginning to see the climate-change signal emerge, certainly in the climate record and then at the same time the fires are also becoming unprecedented. We’re seeing fires that are setting records in terms of their size and their intensity, and our ability to manage them is becoming less and less.”

To really get an idea of what Hall is talking about, consider the Thomas Fire in northern Ventura County, the worst California wildfire in state history. It began Dec. 4, claimed two lives, destroyed 1,000 structures and was not fully contained until Jan. 12. Nearly 282,000 acres were charred.

During December, Southern California experienced Santa Ana winds near 70 mph – something not seen in decades. What started the Thomas Fire isn’t known, but it raced through the region at a frenzy. Winds carried dense plumes of gray smoke miles from where the fire was burning. More than 500 engines from all over California were stationed at the Ventura County Fairgrounds along with more than 2,500 firefighters.

Chris Harvey of the Sacramento Fire Department was part of that team.

“We’re talking about a fire that’s over the size of the city of Detroit at this point. It’s likely to be much larger than that,” Harvey said.

Weeks later, the Thomas Fire had engulfed an area larger than New York City.

The December 2017 Thomas Fire burns in the hills above Los Padres National Forest. (Photo: Stuart Palley for the U.S. Forest Service)

“It is like a war zone,” said Gretel Compton of Ventura County, whose home was partly destroyed. “You’re driving through areas where they’re completely burnt out and black. It looks like a bomb went off.

“I want to go home. I want to see what the damage is. We have lost part of our house. I’m just so up in the air. I don’t know what to do. Where do you start? I have no water. I have no power. I’m on a well. All of that stuff is burnt. Other friends and neighbors have lost everything, everything, everything, and now they have to start from scratch and it’s just so heart-wrenching.”

Wildfires can have devastating consequences, including loss of life, destroyed homes, financial losses and air quality damaged by tons of carbon dioxide.

But wildfires also can benefit the environment, climate scientists say.

They can rid forested areas of dead and decaying matter that provide fuel during dry periods. Fires can help balance the ecosystem by destroying diseased vegetation and dangerous insects, like the bark beetle, which has decimated millions of acres of California forest over the past decade. Fires even regenerate seeds for trees that require intense heat every few years to sprout.

“Wildfire is a natural part of our landscapes,” Hall said, “and our natural landscapes actually need wildfire to regenerate, and we have to learn how to coexist sustainably with wildfire going forward – and that’s something we haven’t done a great job with in California.”

Harvey, the Sacramento firefighter, noted Southern California’s “long history of destructive and catastrophic wildfires.”

“We do take a very personal feeling to what’s going on here,” he said. “So I hate to say this, but this could continue to be a very explosive and expansive event.”

Hall said he was “concerned about our sustainability relationship with fire.”

“The most important thing that we can do to combat climate change is to stop burning fossil fuels,” he said. “We need to replace those energy sources with renewable energy sources, and examples of those are solar power, wind power, hydro power. Those are the things we need to rely on in the future. We will see less warming in California and that will lead to less of an impact on fire. That will lead to less of an increase in fire risk, and that will help us manage this increasingly difficult situation that we have with wildfire.”