Fire!

The past few months have been quite hectic here at the Eagle Lake Field Office in Susanville, CA. In August, a wildfire ignited over 300,000 acres of our field office. As soon as the fire was declared contained, our office began working on the Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation Plan for the fire. I put my CLM internship on hold and was hired by the BLM for two months to help work on this plan. There was an immediate need for detailed maps of the fire area so that the resource advisors could check out the aftermath and do their jobs more efficiently. I was thrown into ArcMap with only a little knowledge of the program and was forced to learn how to use it. This is a very effective way to learn a program quickly, and with the help of the other intern, I am now able to swiftly create good-lookin’ maps and run analyses on data in ArcMap.

Coming from the Midwest, I have no experience with wildfires at all. Susanville was blanketed in smoke for a month or two while the 300,000 acre Rush Fire as well as 2-3 other significant sized fires surrounded the town. Wildfires are definitely a humbling event and it was interesting to see everyone’s different reactions to them. Some of my co-workers were in tears over the damage that it was doing to the land, while others were rooting for it to burn more. Having experience using prescribed fires to manage resources in Indiana, my initial reaction was that the fire was a good thing and that the plants would bounce back quickly and with great vigor. I soon learned that there is a key issue that must be considered when a wildfire rages through the West: cheat grass.

I became familiar with cheat grass very quickly when I moved to California back in May. It’s everywhere; and where it’s a little more sparse, it’s always threatening to encroach on and crowd out the native bunch grasses and other native plant species. There is great fear that the burned areas that were once dense sagebrush habitat will turn completely to cheat grass, and will stay cheat grass. The invasive grass species has completely changed the fire regime for the sagebrush habitat so that fires occur more frequently. The native brush does not have a chance to establish itself before the next fire rolls through the cheat grass fields. You can easily pick out where past fires have occurred from the large patches of yellow in the landscape where nothing but cheat grass is growing. It is startling to look at the fire history data and see that the field of grass is the exact fire perimeter of a past wildfire.

This fire has opened my eyes to the severe need for native seed to be used for fire rehabilitation and the importance of the SOS program. Most of fire area did not burn that hot, so the roots of native grasses are still intact and have high potential to bounce back and successfully outcompete cheat grass. However, some areas got completely cooked and are more susceptible to cheat grass invasion because of the loss of the native seed bank. In these areas, seeding with native plant species is very beneficial to help keep out cheat grass. The SOS program is an excellent way to ensure that there is enough seed available for fire rehab (which was definitely an issue this year with all the wildfires that occurred) and that the seed used is native.

My BLM position ended recently so I have resumed my CLM internship. The BLM position was an excellent opportunity and I am very thankful that the CLM internship is so flexible and helped facilitate it. I am now looking forward to the challenge of finding and collecting viable sagebrush seed to help out with the Rush Fire rehab.

Dust devil after the fire

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