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  • Writer's pictureLucas Nava

Smith: "Herbaceous plants ... were the best predictor of large range fires"

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Scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service and the University of Montana have developed a method to predict which of the Great Basin's more than 60 million acres are most likely to experience a large rangeland fire.

The predictions come from a model which combines measures of accumulated annual and perennial grass vegetation which is potential fuel for fires with recent weather and climate data, according to a Sept. 21 news release.

"Accurate forecasting of rangeland fires depends, in large part, on our ability to quantify the buildup of grassy fuels from the previous year," model designer co-lead Chad S. Boyd said in the release. Boyd is a rangeland scientist with ARS Range and Meadow Forage Management Research Unit.

"I was a little surprised that accumulation of herbaceous plants from the previous growing season was the best predictor of large range fires," University of Montana research scientist and model designer co-lead Joe T. Smith said in the release. "This gives new emphasis to fighting the spread of fast-growing invasive annual grasses like cheatgrass in the Great Basin."

The integrated data can be translated into maps revealing the likelihood of a wildfire larger than 1,000 acres across the Great Basin. The forecasts can also be minimized to focus on fire risks for counties and single pastures.

"The maps can be used alongside other planning tools to decide where to focus limited resources before the fire season begins," Boyd explained, according to the release. "They also can help target annual efforts to reduce fine fuels like grasses, which can lessen the impacts of fire on the region's wildlife and working lands."

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