When it comes to wildfires, beware of dry grass — where most fires occur: NPR

When it comes to wildfires, beware of dry grass — where most fires occur: NPR

NPR’s Ailsa Chang talks with Jeva Lange, who wrote a story called “Most Wildfires Aren’t Wildfires,” about how wildfires largely occur in grasslands.

Elsa Chang, host:

There is an actual US government agency called the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. correct. Informational videos have been made, like this one called, “Oh, it’s just a grass fire.”

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, “Oh, it’s just a grass fire”)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Should you allow yourself to become more complacent with what you might consider to be just another routine fire?

(sound of Music)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: As you will see, such a mentality is a mistake.

CHANG: FALSE – You see, when we think of devastating wildfires, we might think of dense forests billowing with smoke. But in West Maui, the deadliest wildfires in the United States in more than a century were largely caused by non-native dry grass. In fact, most wildfires are not wildfires. This is something Geva Lange wrote about in an article for Heatmap, a news site that tracks climate and energy. Hi Jeeva.

Jeva Lange: Hello. Thank you for having me.

Zhang: Thank you for being with us. She writes that most wildfires actually occur in grasslands. What kind of proportions are we looking at here?

LANG: In a study of western states between 1984 and 2020 — including 11 states on the West Coast — only 35% of fires were actually in wildfires. So there are a lot of fires in the grasslands.

Zhang: Right. Are grass fires different from forest fires? I mean, obviously they start in different places, but are grass fires generally more intense or more destructive?

LANG: Yes. So I’ll think about grass fires in two ways. They’re mechanically different and therefore psychologically different, so to speak.

CHANG: Okay.

LANG: They’re very different mechanically, in the sense that they start easily, burn very quickly, and burn unpredictably. But it’s also psychologically different from wildfires because they’re really underestimated. They look like something you could put out or douse with a hose, so both firefighters and residents tend not to think about them seriously.

CHANG: Okay. Well, you said in your article that grass fires are an increasing danger throughout the United States. Can you explain why this is? Why is it an increased risk?

LANG: One of the things I didn’t realize when I started covering this story is that invasive grasses were the fuel behind the really dangerous and deadly fire on Maui. But it’s also a problem in the western United States. There are European grasses that were introduced into these landscapes for a variety of reasons and that are now gaining a foothold. They outcompete native plants and spread. By one estimate, invasive grasses triple the area’s vulnerability to wildfires. They act as a fuse in the landscape for fire to spread into areas where it does not naturally belong as part of the ecosystem. This is like deserts – so are urban environments.

CHANG: Urban environments – I mean, do you see that grass fires tend to explode near cities and towns?

LANG: Yes. So some of the scariest wildfires in the United States recently have been grass fires. There’s Maui, of course, but also in 2021, there was a Fire Marshall in Boulder. This area does not appear to be a dangerous area due to forest fires. The largest fires in the history of both Nevada and Texas were also grassland fires. So it’s spread out across the western United States and getting closer and closer to the areas where we’ve created what is — what’s referred to as the land-urban interface.

Zhang: Yes. Well, what can communities do to better protect themselves from the threat of grass fires? For example, what practical steps can they take?

LANG: What I hear over and over again from the wildfire professionals I talk to is that Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service, agencies like this, need to stop prioritizing suppression and letting the good fires burn. If we were to bring back farmland around urban areas – which is undoubtedly a challenge – land use issues are always there – but this would put a barrier back up again. Then the last option is to figure out a way to keep the grass shorter. But you can’t really mow these hills. They rock. It’s very steep. One idea is what’s called strategic grazing, which – I love that term, but that’s what it sounds like. that it…

Chang: Goat?

LANG: Exactly. Yes. Goats, cows, sheep and landscape animals that keep grass under control.

CHANG: Okay. Take out the cattle.

LANG: Yes.

CHANG: Jeva Lang is a writer at Heatmap. Thank you very much, Jeeva.

LANG: Thank you very much.

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