Rising From the Ashes

More efforts needed to rehabilitate post-wildfire ecosystems

Wildfire scars have become nearly as commonplace in the Mojave Desert as yellow-flowering blackbrush plants and yucca trees. Charred, twisted Joshua trees still remain along the scenic loop in Red Rock from the 2005 and 2006 lightning strikes. And the recent blaze that started from an illegal campfire and spread to 20 acres on Mount Charleston serves as a reminder that the Southwest is at risk for wildfires this time of year.

A study by UNLV ecologist Scott Abella says these areas burned by wildfires can take up to 65 years to fully recover. Human-aided restoration of these spots is necessary, he says, as wildfires are expected to be more “frequent and severe” in the region, partly caused by the spread of non-native grasses.

Abella found that invasive species, such as red brome grass in the desert and cheatgrass in the forest, repopulate more quickly after a fire than native plants and trees. Once an ignition takes place, these grasses serve as fuel to the fire, which he says is what happened at Mount Charleston. Climate change also means potentially drier, fire-inducing conditions. “It’s just a matter of time until there’s another bigger fire, or multiple fires,” Abella says. “We could wake up and see we don’t have much forest left in our Spring Mountains.”

Abella is working with the Bureau of Land Management and the Nevada Division of Forestry on new methods for treating post-burn environments. “It’s a trade-off of investing in areas that have burned or preserving what’s left,” he says. “The reality is that in Red Rock Canyon there’s such a small portion of vegetation and ecosystem that’s still intact. Most is now burn scars and non-native grasses.”

A big problem is that once burns take place, trees start to grow back at the same time, competing for moisture and sunlight, says Pete Anderson, state forester for the Nevada Division of Forestry. The solution is tree-thinning, or physically cutting down trees to maintain a mix of young and old trees and species. “A healthy forest is a well-diversified forest,” Anderson says. “There’s only limited water and soil nutrients.” Abella says the best way to do this is to use the forest’s history as a template. “We try to understand what the forests were like in 1800s, so we can try and go in and reduce tree densities to what they used to be.”

Experts are also looking at the use of herbicides and prescribed burning to rid areas of invasive species that act as tinder, but these tactics come at a cost. “Herbicides can kill native plants, and that’s not appealing,” Abella says. “[Prescribed] burning is good idea, but it’s killed Joshua trees—a native, charismatic plant that can take a couple hundred years to come back.”

Recovery efforts are impeded by cost, says Kevin Oliver, BLM fire management officer. He says the BLM chooses to restore plants that are important to the environment, such as blackbrush, which serves as food and shade for animals. “We do seedings of annual and perennial native grasses, but it’s extremely expensive and we don’t have enough money to restore every acre,” Oliver says. “We try to build little islands of native vegetation, so the islands can then grow out.”

What’s at stake for the public is increased carbon dioxide emissions from wildfires, as well as the loss of what makes up part of Southern Nevada’s identity, Oliver says. “It’s a pretty special place,” he says. “If we don’t do something, places like Red Rock won’t be Red Rock.”