Despite the wildfires that are currently burning in Idaho, it’s been a relatively slow fire season. Wildland firefighters credit significantly fewer lighting strikes.
However, over the last century the average number of wildfires in Idaho has increased dramatically and this has fueled the spread of invasive cheatgrass.
Cheatgrass is that annoying plant you’ve likely had stuck in your shoes after a walk in the foothills, but it is more than just a nuisance. Land managers say cheatgrass is changing the landscape of the American West and crowding out native plant species while creating a tinderbox for fire.
Unlike many native species which can take years to recover from fire, cheatgrass quickly blankets an area that has burned. The flames from wildfires do not destroy tiny cheatgrass seeds which sprout annually, making it the ideal fuel for wildfire.
Wildfire managers tell 6 On Your Side under ideal conditions fire moves through native vegetation at a rate of 0.4 miles per hour; under the same conditions fire moves through cheatgrass at four miles per hour, that is ten times faster.
“Last year with the Soda Fire I was shocked at how quickly it moved. We’re talking miles in minutes when it was really up and moving with the wind behind it.” Said BLM Fire Manager Andy Delmas.
Much like the flames that rage through cheatgrass, the sticky seeds of cheatgrass have spread throughout the west, dominating millions of acres. The spread across the landscape has increased the frequency of wildfire. Massive fires that once occurred every twenty to fifty years are now happening every three to seven. A vicious cycle that most land managers say it too late to stop.