NATIONAL NEWS

A plant that’s everywhere is fueling a growing risk of wildfire disaster

Mar 21, 2024, 12:18 PM

A firefighter watches as a fire burns through grass on March 26, 2022 in Boulder, Colorado.
Mandato...

A firefighter watches as a fire burns through grass on March 26, 2022 in Boulder, Colorado. Mandatory Credit: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images via CNN Newsource

(CNN) — A ubiquitous, resilient and seemingly harmless plant is fueling an increase in large, fast-moving and destructive wildfires in the United States.

Grass is as plentiful as sunshine, and under the right weather conditions is like gasoline for wildfires: All it takes is a spark for it to explode.

Planet-warming emissions are wreaking havoc on temperature and precipitation, resulting in larger and more frequent fires. Those fires are fueling the vicious cycle of ecological destruction that are helping to make grass king.

“Name an environment and there’s a grass that can survive there,” said Adam Mahood, research ecologist with the US Department of Agriculture’s research service. “Any 10-foot area that’s not paved is going to have some kind of grass on it.”

Grass fires are typically less intense and shorter-lived than forest fires, but can spread exponentially faster, outrun firefighting resources and burn into the growing number of homes being built closer to fire-prone wildlands, fire experts told CNN.

Over the last three decades, the number of US homes destroyed by wildfire has more than doubled as fires burn bigger and badder, a recent study found. Most of those homes were burned not by forest fires, but by fires racing through grass and shrubs.

The West is most at risk, the study found, where more than two-thirds of the homes burned over the last 30 years were located. Of those, nearly 80% were burned in grass and shrub fires.

One part of the equation is people are building closer to fire-prone wildlands, in the so-called wildland-urban interface. The amount of land burning in this sensitive area has grown exponentially since the 1990s. So has the number of houses. Around 44 million houses were in the interface as of 2020, an increase of 46% over the last 30 years, the same study found.

Building in areas more likely to burn comes with obvious risks, but because humans are also responsible for starting most fires, it also increases the chance a fire will ignite in the first place.

More than 80,000 homes are in the wildland-urban interface, in the sparsely populated parts of Kansas and Colorado that Bill King manages. The US Forest Service officer said living on the edge of nature requires an active hand to prevent destruction.

Property owners “need to do their part too, because these fires – they get so big and intense and sometimes wind-driven that they could spot miles ahead even if we have a huge fuel break,” King said.

‘A perfect storm’ for fire

Climate change-fueled fire is attacking the western half of the US on all fronts.

“Globally, the places that burn the most are places that have intermediate precipitation,” said John Abatzoglou, a climate professor at the University of California, Merced. “It’s a little bit like Goldilocks. Not too wet, not too dry, just right, with plenty of ignition.”

In America’s grassy heartland, the typically dry and often windy Plains, a series of compounding extremes across seasons are creating ideal fire fuel conditions in perennial grasses. Grass is more plentiful here than in other regions in the US, offering more continuous fuel for fires to feed off.

The region is seeing more megafires like Texas’s largest fire, the Smokehouse Creek Fire, and more destructive ones like Colorado’s Marshall Fire, which burned through more than 1,000 homes in 2021.

Rainy springs fuel more grass growth. Then it goes dormant, or plays dead, in the winter. Warmer winters with less snow cover, especially in the Northern Plains, expose the grass to warmer, drier spells in the late winter and early spring, according to King and Todd Lindley, a fire weather expert for the National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma.

Grass is uniquely flammable because of its sensitivity to weather, Lindley said. Unlike in forests, it doesn’t take long spells of warm, dry weather to turn grass to tinder. Moisture can be sapped from the plant in as little as an hour and even a day after rain. Throw in a spark, strong winds and invasive shrubs that burn hotter and longer and you have a recipe for grass fire disaster.

“These compound extremes, these sequences of extremes that follow one another, if you get the right sequence, it can be game on for this sort of wildfire,” Abatzoglou said. “Basically, you’re creating a perfect storm for the fire to spread there.”

Grass invasion

Extreme drought and years of forest neglect are creating larger and more intense fires in western forests, King said.

“When I started 30 years ago, a big fire was 30,000 acres, and now that’s normal, that’s typical,” said King. “I’d have maybe one a year, one every couple of years of that size, and now we hear of 1-million-acre forest fires.”

Grass exists in forest systems, too, and acts like a fuse to connect easier-to-ignite finer fuels to larger, drought-impacted tree systems, creating and spreading more intense fires.

When the trees die, grass moves in. Grass recovers from fire much faster than other plants and can burn again, sometimes within a matter of months. King has seen this firsthand.

“You could have green grasses coming up in a burned-grass landscape within a day or two, that’s how fast it rejuvenates,” King said.“Forest recovery could take years or generations, or never recover in our lifetime, or our generation’s.”

As more vegetation in the West burns, it’s being replaced by both native and nonnative grass.

In the desert, it’s creating fire where it wasn’t before, USDA’s Mahood said. The same drought-fueled fires are now becoming bigger in deserts because of annual grasses, which unlike the perennial grasses in the Plains, don’t exist year-round.

These grasses take advantage of rare bursts of rain to propagate, then die, forming a carpet of fire fuel on the desert floor.

Two recent fires in California’s Mojave National Preserve are perfect examples, Mahood said. Those fires took advantage of invasive red brome grass and burned hundreds of thousands of acres of Mojave Desert and over a million iconic Joshua Trees.

The increasing hot and dry conditions then suppress native plant recovery.  The result is more grass.

The West’s stubby, iconic sagebrush is the single biggest ecosystem in the Lower 48, but half of it has been lost or degraded over the last 20 years. A roughly Delaware-sized area of sagebrush falls victim to grass, fire and other stressors each year, a USGS study found.

With more grass and a complex web of climate stressors comes more fire risk now and increasingly in the future.

“It may seem bad now, but this will probably not seem nearly as bad in the next decade,” Mahood said. “Think about how bad the fire season was two decades ago – now, that seems like nothing.”


The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

KSL 5 TV Live

National News

High school students taking College boards exams in 1964. (Warren K. Leffler, US News & World Repor...

Eva Rothenberg, CNN

Should the SAT still matter after all these years? Why some colleges are bringing it back

After decades of controversy over bias, the SAT is being brought back in commission by some colleges.

4 hours ago

FILE - Colorado Rockies hitting coach Hensley Meulens chats with players as they warm up before a b...

Associated Press

Federal officials investigating cockpit visit by Rockies coach during United flight

Federal transportation officials are investigating an unauthorized inflight cockpit visit by a coach for the Colorado Rockies during a United Airlines charter flight last week from Denver to Toronto.

19 hours ago

Tim Hernandez hugs Kallie Leyba as former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, second from right, hugs Anne...

Colleen Slevin, The Associated Press

12 students and teacher killed in Columbine school shooting remembered at 25th anniversary vigil

A girl who wrote to God in her diaries, a boy with learning disabilities who was just learning to like who he was and a teen who would spend every free minute fishing were among the 13 victims of the Columbine High School shooting remembered during a vigil Friday on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the shooting that was the worst the nation had seen at the time.

24 hours ago

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 23: A young fan displays her ticket for Taylor Swift's first Sydney co...

Anita Snow, Associated Press

Record Store Day celebrates indie retail music sellers as they ride vinyl’s popularity wave

Special LP releases, live performances and at least one giant block party are scheduled around the U.S. Saturday as hundreds of shops celebrate Record Store Day during a surge of interest in vinyl during a surge of interest in vinyl and the day after the release of Taylor Swift's latest album.

1 day ago

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks at the US Capitol earlier this year. (Craig Hudson/REUT...

Ted Barrett, Morgan Rimmer and Clare Foran, CNN

Senate passes surveillance bill despite contentious debate over privacy concerns

The Senate voted late Friday to reauthorize a key surveillance authority, avoiding a lapse in the controversial program.

1 day ago

This photo from the US Navy shows the USS Higgins in Yokosuka, Japan, in November 2022. (Mass Commu...

Shania Shelton, CNN

US sailor found guilty at court martial on attempted espionage charges

A US sailor who served in Japan was found guilty on Friday at a general court martial for attempted espionage, failure to obey a lawful order and attempted violation of a lawful general order.

1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

Women hold card for scanning key card to access Photocopier Security system concept...

Les Olson

Why Printer Security Should Be Top of Mind for Your Business

Connected printers have vulnerable endpoints that are an easy target for cyber thieves. Protect your business with these tips.

Modern chandelier hanging from a white slanted ceiling with windows in the backgruond...

Lighting Design

Light Up Your Home With These Top Lighting Trends for 2024

Check out the latest lighting design trends for 2024 and tips on how you can incorporate them into your home.

Technician woman fixing hardware of desktop computer. Close up....

PC Laptops

Tips for Hassle-Free Computer Repairs

Experiencing a glitch in your computer can be frustrating, but with these tips you can have your computer repaired without the stress.

Close up of finger on keyboard button with number 11 logo...

PC Laptops

7 Reasons Why You Should Upgrade Your Laptop to Windows 11

Explore the benefits of upgrading to Windows 11 for a smoother, more secure, and feature-packed computing experience.

Stylish room interior with beautiful Christmas tree and decorative fireplace...

Lighting Design

Create a Festive Home with Our Easy-to-Follow Holiday Prep Guide

Get ready for festive celebrations! Discover expert tips to prepare your home for the holidays, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for unforgettable moments.

Battery low message on mobile device screen. Internet and technology concept...

PC Laptops

9 Tips to Get More Power Out of Your Laptop Battery

Get more power out of your laptop battery and help it last longer by implementing some of these tips from our guide.

A plant that’s everywhere is fueling a growing risk of wildfire disaster