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April 11, 2012
By Andrew Church
Reno landowners whose properties were affected by last winter’s Caughlin and Washoe fires are carefully watching their yards these days to see what plants will emerge as survivors of the devastating blazes.
And University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Educator JoAnne Skelly says all most people can do to see if their trees, bushes or grasses survived is to be patient.
“In the end, it’s often wait and see,” said Skelly. “Be patient. Plants are often amazingly resilient.”
Skelly learned a great deal about how landscapes react to fires when she helped homeowners recovering from the Carson City Waterfall Fire in 2004. After the Caughlin Fire in November 2011 and the Washoe Fire in January 2012, she provided a number of public workshops to homeowners wondering how to bring their scorched landscapes back to life.
Skelly, the Extension Educator for Carson City/Storey County, says that there are numerous factors that determine the extent of damage caused by a wildfire, such as the density of fuels in a fire’s path, the duration of the burn and the season the fire takes place. Areas with heavy and dense vegetation can provide excess fuel for a fire, causing it to burn longer and hotter in a particular area. The longer and hotter the fire burns, the greater chance roots can be damaged in overheated soils.
Plants that survive the burn are still subject to the fire’s aftereffects. Skelly says that fires can evaporate the moisture out of soils, leaving vegetation without water.
“After a fire, putting water back into the soil is critical to plant survival. Plants absorb water through their roots all winter long and need that moisture. With the dry winter we are having, plants are already under stress, and a fire on top of those conditions can be exceptionally devastating. ”
Fire-damaged , dry soils can also make it difficult for new seeds to grow, making the recovery process longer. Skelly says that cheatgrass often is one of the first plants to reclaim a fire burned area due to its early germination, and low water and nutrient requirements. Cheatgrass is a non-native grass that goes to seed rapidly, leaving large portions of landscape covered in dry, highly flammable fuel. These burned areas are at an elevated risk for another fire.
Desert plants react to fire in various ways. Sagebrush responds poorly to even low-intensity wildfires and is often killed, while plants such as rabbitbrush and horsebrush are more resistant. Often the recovery of a plant depends on the conditions of the fire and the damage to the plant.
“For some plants, the stage of growth determines the degree of damage,” said Skelly. “Most plants, such as perennial grasses, for example, are more susceptible to fire damage when actively growing than when dormant. At the Caughlin and Washoe fire sites, the perennial grasses were dormant and suffered little damage, so now we are seeing new growth.”
Although the impacts can be severe, Skelly advises homeowners and gardeners looking to help their landscapes recover to take care of their plants. For example, tree wrap, light-colored cloth, and water-based paints can be used to protect the trunks and limbs of trees.
“If your landscape plants were damaged in a fire, be sure to provide them with enough irrigation water to keep the soil moist,” said Skelly. “Protect the trunks and large limbs of trees from sunburn until the leaf or needle area regrows.”
Cooperative Extension’s Living with Fire program also helps homeowners address the threat of wildfires. More information about this program can be found at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.
The University of Nevada Cooperative Extension is the outreach college that extends knowledge from the University of Nevada – and other land-grant universities – to local communities to address critical needs. UNCE is a federal-state-county partnership providing practical education Nevadans can trust, to help people, businesses and communities solve problems, develop skills and build a better future.