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

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

SOURCE: High Country News DATE: June 13, 2019 SNIP: 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...