The West’s worst fires aren’t burning in forests

Range fires get bigger every year, threatening sagebrush habitat and rural towns.

 

The burn scar from the Martin Fire in Nevada as seen in this aerial photo. The largest wildfire in the state’s history, it decimated sagebrush habitat.

Between the town of Elko, Nevada, and the Idaho border stretches some of the most remote land in the Lower 48, rolling hills and arid basins as far as the eye can see. Last July, this section of the Owyhee Desert was scorched by a fierce, fast-moving blaze with 40-foot flames, the largest wildfire in state history. In the end, the Martin Fire burned 435,000 acres, including some of the West’s finest sagebrush habitat. Now, the raw range wind whips up the bare earth into enormous black clouds that roil on the horizon.

Once rare, fires that large, hot and destructive are now common in the Great Basin, a 200,000-square-mile region of mountains and valleys that includes all of Nevada and much of Utah, as well as parts of California, Idaho and Oregon. But despite the rising fire risk, a general lack of attention is putting the rangeland in growing danger.

The fire problem “risks permanent loss” of the ecosystem, according to Jolie Pollet, a fire ecologist and the Bureau of Land Management’s division chief for fire planning and fuels management. This is a genuine crisis, she said, and it demands greater urgency and attention than it is currently getting.

“The general public, especially urban areas, doesn’t seem to have an appreciation for the impacts on these landscapes, since the areas are so sparsely populated,” she said.

The new ferocity of rangeland fires has an old culprit: cheatgrass, an annual originally from Eurasia that was brought to this country in cattle feed, packing material and ships’ ballast in the late 1800s. It has since proliferated through overgrazing and development. The grass burns easily and often, and it thrives on fire. In intense blazes, when native shrubs perish, cheatgrass simply drops its seeds and then expands into the burned areas. The areas of greatest fire risk in the Great Basin have a high correlation with the areas of highest cheatgrass incursion, and the increasingly dry and arid climate brought by climate change is encouraging its spread. The Great Basin now has the nation’s highest wildfire risk.

Since 2014, 9 million acres of sagebrush have been permanently lost to fires like the Artesian Fire in 2018.

Historically, sagebrush habitat burned about once every century or less, but now it happens around every five to 10 years. Over the past two decades, more than 15 million acres of sagebrush have been permanently lost to fire, according to the BLM, 9 million of them since 2014. Overall, since 2000, more acres of shrubland or grasssland have burned than forest.

If sagebrush decline continues, the approximately 350 species that depend on it are in serious trouble. The Martin Fire burned some of the best sage grouse habitat in the country and destroyed more than 35 grouse mating grounds, or leks. The fires also harm watersheds, cause erosion and destroy wildlife corridors used by pronghorn antelope, mule deer and elk.

The impact on rural Americans is equally severe. Counties and ranchers must deal with infrastructure loss, including troughs, fencing, and damage to roads and powerlines. Many ranchers struggle with the additional costs, said Ron Cerri, a rancher and commissioner in agriculture-dependent Humboldt County, where the Martin Fire burned. Ranchers may lose hayfields in a blaze, for example, and six months of hay for 500 cattle costs about $216,000, according to Cerri. Cattle often die in the flames, and ranchers have to put down animals crippled by the smoke. Jon Griggs, a Nevada rancher whose land burned in 2007, called it the worst part of the job.

Because sagebrush ecosystems are neglected, they get less funding, making the fire threat even worse. Indeed, the BLM receives even less money than the already-underfunded Forest Service. For 2019, the Forest Service got about $400 million in annual funding for fuel management, and about $1.3 billion for firefighting preparedness. The BLM received $85 million and $180 million respectively, even though it manages about 50 million more acres of public land. The BLM also received $11 million for fire recovery, a microscopic amount, given the scale of the problem.

When the BLM runs out of firefighting money, it’s forced to raid other programs, as the blazes quickly burn through agency budgets.

“The agencies run out of money and all the other programs get gutted,” said University of Montana wildlife biology professor Dave Naugle. “In the long term, it really hurts conservation.”

Last year, Congress passed a measure that allows the BLM to access emergency fire funds without draining other initiatives. But the provision doesn’t kick in until next year, and even when it does, the BLM will remain seriously underfunded for firefighting, prevention and restoration.

Meanwhile, wildfires are already burning across the West, and the cheatgrass is beginning to dry up, turning from its spring purple to the yellowish hue that signals its readiness to burn.

Pollet put it succinctly: “I’m scared for 2019.”

Nick Bowlin is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

 
High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.