Science Moab: Wildfire scientists answer burning questions

This is the first of a two-part series on the science of fire, brought to you by Science Moab’s partners at Utah Tech University and the Southern Utah Science Cafe. This discussion was recorded live in early 2022 in St. George and concerns the impact of wildfires on the land and its inhabitants. Panel members included Greg Melton (Utah Tech Department of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences), Mike Schiff (Biologist, Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan), and Jason Whipple (Director, Washington County Emergency Services) .

Science Cafe: Can each of you share a little about your background in wildfire science?

Greg Melton: I was deployed to a wildfire in Colorado, at a very high altitude, over 10,000 feet in South Park. Every day around mid-afternoon a cell of thunderstorms moved into our area. The safety guys would take us off the line and wait for the storm to pass because we don’t want people going out in the trees when there’s lightning. The winds are getting super choppy and the situation is not super safe. One particular day we were pulled over and sat there watching this huge storm cell roll in. And just as she passed over the top of the wildfire, the air convection that was coming from that wildfire tipped the whole cell on her side and created a tornado that is unheard of at 10,000 feet. In the mountains, this is almost impossible. So here we are, sitting in our trucks looking at a forest fire, a huge hail falls on us and this tornado touches down in the middle of the forest fire. So it was fun.

Mike Disick: It will be hard to top this! But the reason I was invited today was to talk about some of the effects we’ve seen from the wildfires in our Mojave Desert. As a biologist for the Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan, I help manage the Red Rocks Wilderness Preserve. A huge challenge for us is trying to figure out how best to deal with the effects of fires that are often fueled by invasive species such as grass. Habitat loss is the number one threat facing the desert tortoise, and specifically in our area, it is the threat of wildfire.

Jason Whipple: I have been mostly on the side where we enter and put out the fire; it’s a small change in our thinking when we start looking at the science behind it and looking at the cause and effect of the fire and our suppression activities. A big part of my job is taking all of these elements and bringing them together so that we can help rehabilitate the land and still put out the fire in a way that is healthy.

Science Cafe: How to deal with invasive grasses?

Disc: It’s really a challenge, especially depending on the timing of the winter precipitation. Some years it’s just a carpet of rogue grass out there. 100 years ago, the Mojave Desert didn’t have to contend with these massive fires sweeping across the landscape. We’re starting to put more herbicides on the ground to reduce that heavy fuel load – one thing my department funded was to go to some of the utility rights on the reservation to leave herbicide to use as fire breaks. If they don’t completely stop the spread of a fire approaching those roads, hopefully they will give firefighters more time to get there. Invasive grasses are incredibly resilient, so they can probably still come back in many cases from wildfires, but many of the native shrubs can’t come back as effectively.

Science Cafe: What do you do if you see a forest fire? Is there a point where it’s big enough that I can assume someone else reported it?

Whipple: It is always a good idea to report a fire. If there are multiple alarms, whoever answers your call may be a little less on the phone with you, but always report the fire. If you suspect there is a problem, call and the fire crew will go there and check. We’ve called barbecues, but there have also been times when people didn’t know their backyard was on fire or that their barbecue was actually out of control. If you have doubts and want to knock on the door, that’s one thing, but don’t hesitate to report it. If you see smoke, call.

Science Moab is a non-profit organization dedicated to engaging community members and visitors with the science happening in Southeastern Utah and the Colorado Plateau. To learn more and hear the rest of this interview, visit www.sciencemoab.org/radio. This interview has been edited for clarity.

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