The wildfires began in early August with almost unimaginable speed and fury.
On the night of Aug. 4, 8,275 lightning strikes were recorded in one 12-hour period in northern Nevada, and by the next day some 300,000 acres of rangeland were on fire or already burned. Within just five days, more than 1 million acres had been burned. By the end of the month, more than 1.5 million acres in Nevada had been charred--an area 40 times as large as the District.
Fire has always been a natural part of the Great Basin, the massive basin and range country between the Rockies and Sierras that includes most of Nevada, western Utah, southern Idaho and southeast Oregon and that appears to motorists hurtling between Salt Lake City and Reno as a desert wasteland. Of the major plant communities that exist here--sagebrush, salt desert shrub, and pinyon-juniper--all but the salt desert shrub have been shaped by the relatively infrequent, low-intensity fires that characterized this region.
But the massive fires in the Great Basin in the summer of 1999 were of a size and character fundamentally different from what occurred here naturally before white settlement began altering the landscape. To scientists who study and manage the land here, the fires that now occur far more frequently and burn far more of the landscape are a stark reminder of an ecological crisis affecting much of the Great Basin.
The big villain here is cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum, an annual bromegrass native to Eurasia. Introduced into this country around the turn of the century, cheatgrass quickly found a niche in the West, where overgrazing by cattle and sheep in the late 1800s had weakened native perennial bunchgrasses. Today, cheatgrass occupies millions of acres of land in the West, and it has fundamentally altered the normal fire timetable.
"Before we had cheatgrass, the fuel that carries fire matured in August to mid-September," said Jim Young, a research scientist at the University of Nevada campus in Reno. "Cheatgrass matures in June, and extends the fire season. It's a very fine-textured, abundant fuel."
As an early maturing annual, cheatgrass typically outcompetes perennial grasses for the sparse rains that usually come during the winter in the Great Basin. The perennial natives it displaces--the blue bunch wheat grass, great basin wild rye, bottle brush squirrel tail, indian rice grass and idaho fescue--"are all pretty well adapted to fire," said Bob Means, a fire ecologist with the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees 75 million acres in the Great Basin.
In the low-precipitation areas where cheatgrass thrives, the invasion has dramatically shortened the intervals between fires and opened up the landscape for opportunistic noxious weeds such as knapweed and rush skeletonweed. "Cheatgrass has totally changed the fire regime, from 50- to 100-year intervals to 5- to 10-year intervals," said Means. "It burns, and each time it burns it pushes farther into the remnant native vegetation and encourages an increase in the cheatgrass monoculture."
Helen Hankins, who heads up the Elko district of the BLM, saw a half-million acres of her territory burn this summer. "The more fires you have, the more cheatgrass you have," she said. "The more cheatgrass you have, the more fires you have. If we don't break the cycle pretty soon, we won't have a 200,000-acre fire, we'll have a 500,000-acre fire and we don't want to go there."
The dominance of cheatgrass, and the shortening of fire return intervals, has a cascading effect on the Great Basin ecosystem. With more vegetation burned, there are fewer roots to hold the soil, and erosion increases. Increased silt in the streams that are this arid region's lifeblood, and less vegetative cover along riparian areas, spell trouble for the Lahontan cutthroat trout, a threatened species that is hanging on in just 10 percent of its historic range.
Because most sagebrush species take 10 to 15 years to recover after fire, the fact that fire is returning to many areas in five years or less is having a dramatic impact not just on those plant communities but on the wildlife that depends on them, from mule deer and wild horses to sage grouse, which could be listed soon under the Endangered Species Act.
"It's going to affect the birds, no question, because you've lost a lot of the sagebrush," said BLM wildlife biologist Ken Wilkinson during a recent tour of the Sadler fire, a 209,000-acre blaze south of Elko.
The surge in fires--this year's burned acreage was more than 10 times the annual average in Nevada for the past decade--also affects the human inhabitants in the Great Basin, particularly the cattle ranchers who almost all must rely on federal grazing land. Because the BLM insists that burned range be rested for two years, cattlemen have to find alternatives, either renting private land or getting government permission to use federal grazing allotments that have been previously designated for non-use. "A lot of people don't have many options," said Tom Warren, a range conservationist with the BLM's Elko office.
"We've been touched by fires for as long as I can remember," said rancher Rita Stitzel, who runs 500 head of cattle about 10 miles south of Carlin, Nev. "But now it seems like it's burning on an annual basis."
Stitzel, like many ranchers, believes the answer is for the federal government to allow more intensive grazing so the fuel load is reduced. But to many federal land managers and range scientists, more intensive grazing would just put more stress on remnant native grass populations, the very communities that need to be nurtured back to health.
The BLM is proposing an ambitious recovery plan, the Great Basin Restoration Initiative, that would likely cost tens of millions of dollars over the next decade. Priorities would include restoring areas that have lost perennial grasses and protecting those that have not yet been invaded by annual grasses and noxious weeds.
Treatments could include planting fuel breaks with species more resistant to fire than cheatgrass, using controlled fire, mechanical thinning of shrubs, and herbicides.
Ironically, says the University of Nevada's Young, the battle must begin by introducing other grasses from Asia that can compete with cheatgrass, such as crested wheatgrass and forage kochia. "We have never found native perennial grasses that can compete with cheatgrass," said Young. "The only way to combat it is to introduce grasses from Asia. You have to biologically suppress the cheatgrass with those perennial grasses and then build the native community back up from there."
As difficult and expensive as the process might be, said Young, the alternative is "a large-scale disaster" in which the Great Basin continues to degrade into a weed-dominated landscape that "will look like Turkey or Lebanon with nothing but spiny weeds that won't support livestock or people."