Agriculture

Fighting Fire With Weeds

Well, this is a first. Oregano that has decided to go feral.

Interestingly enough, it doesn’t look as burnable, in the short term, as this bunchgrass…

… and about the same as this bunchgrass back in early June:

The standard way to talk about these things is about temperature changes, soil moisture and so on, but perhaps we can get a leg up on fire if we start talking about plant species, when they mature, how they are resistant to fire, and so on. After all, the invasive species, skeleton weed, poking up on the right in the image above, a nasty piece of work, is still green now in this time of extreme drought …

See that? It’s on the left, with the yellow flowers. The green ball to its right is Russian thistle, also invasive. The brown balls are knap weed, also invasive, and as explosive as gasoline. The brown brush throughout is cheatgrass, which goes up like jet fuel and, yeah, also invasive. In the little community above, skeleton weed and Russian thistle, at least at this stage, in this month, are more fire resistant than the others. And planting native species might not be a help. here’s a stand of bunchgrass planted to stabilize a slope, but done so without stabilizing deer populations or taking care of the other species that bunchgrass needs to survive, such as lichens. It might not be all that burnable, but neither is it, really, alive.

Intriguingly enough, it’s in such ill health that even weeds, which love to reclaim bare soil, and even poor soil, won’t touch it. And that, of course is another way to control fire: kill the Earth. It’s not really an alternative, so let’s drop it. Still, the idea is intriguing: if it’s not indigenous species that can control fire now that we’ve thrown the environment for a whack, and if weeds are here to stay, what should we encourage, for fire’s sake? It’s not as simple as it looks. Take Russian thistle:

Yeah, it looks lush at the moment, but when it dries it tumbles in the wind (it is the tumbleweed of legend), and has the potential to spread fire quickly by rolling it along in a fire wind. Not a great idea. On the other hand, native Arrow-leafed Balsam Root …

… is liable to go up in a quick flash, but since she suppresses weed growth around herself, perhaps the speed of the resulting fire is not, in itself, a big issue. If everything burns instantly, it’s not going to blow with embers in the wind. Another indigenous survivor of fire, Big Sage…

… sure isn’t going to be a firefighter’s friend when it is over mature and dead, but that’s likely only because it was denied fire when it needed it. It’s a problem now, but over time we can probably get the situation stable. Right now, though, we need to stop thinking of the grassland environment as “natural”. It is anything but. It’s time to choose our weeds, for fire’s sake. And, well, ahem, if we’re going to argue that all these invasive weeds are an environmental disaster, I agree. If we’re going to argue, though, that they’re a disaster for the cattle industry, I don’t know. The ladies on the hill just love their weeds, and the deer are pretty darned keen on the skeleton weed.

Mind you, there’s nothing else to choose from. Herbivores and fire live in opposition at this time of year. To fight fire, we just have to ask the cows what they like, and set our other ideas aside.

2 replies »

  1. I’ve also been noticing at what is still green as heck and thriving. Clover of all things. It usually is the first to wilt in summer. Now it gleams in the dry grass. Maybe the morning dew, which I still have … I suppose because of trees, is enough for it.

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