Non-native grasses shroud the land scorched by the Siskiyou fire a year ago today, preventing the hillside from eroding, but posing a fire danger, foresters said this week.
The grass, planted about a month after the blaze to prevent erosion from fall rain, is an example of the difficulties ecologists face when trying to rehabilitate land decimated by fire. Solutions can sometimes lead to other problems, said Chris Chambers, forest resource specialist with Ashland Fire & Rescue.
"It's a tricky balance," he said. "It's certainly preferable to use native species, but I can see the situation where they really wanted to get something seeded quickly and, because of cost and time constraints, it was probably better to just go ahead with what was on hand to prevent erosion.
"But we could have had a grass fire go through here this summer if there had been an ignition, and it could have burned the area just like last year."
The Siskiyou fire burned 190 acres, destroyed one unoccupied house and unnerved the entire town. It came within about two miles of the watershed, Ashland's water source, and within feet of dozens of homes, forcing evacuations. Firefighters contained the blaze about 36 hours after it began.
Then it was fall, and foresters began to worry. They knew the fire had burned on steep slopes made largely of decomposed granite, which erodes quickly. They knew rains were coming. And they knew erosion could scar the hillside and taint nearby water sources, harming wildlife.
So the foresters worked quickly. They secured funding, formed partnerships and ordered seed. Working with landowners, three agencies — the Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and federal Bureau of Land Management — sprinkled seed across 143 burned acres. Non-native seed was spread across about 100 of the acres and the rest received a mix of native and non-native seeds.
Almost immediately, the non-native seed, especially the annual rye, spread like wildfire.
It worked to stabilize the hillside. But could it destabilize the forest ecosystem?
Vince Oredson, wildlife habitat biologist with ODFW, is concerned the non-native grass could crowd out native grasses and alter the landscape. He's also concerned that the explosion of grass has increased the fire danger there.
In the future, he'd like to use more native grasses and fewer non-native ones, he said.
"I think I'd like to try more native seed, to go with the native mixes from now on, and see how that works — and not use as much of the annual rye," he said. "I think native species are probably better in the long run and for restoring the natural ecosystem up there."
But others are convinced that planting the non-native grasses was the right move. The grasses stabilized the ground and prevented erosion. The grasses are expected to begin to dwindle within two years, leaving room for native species to thrive, said Angela Boudro, senior planner with Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District.
"In our experience, natives have not been as successful in establishing," she said. "When we have a burn area, we're concerned about erosion and we felt like it was important to use something that we knew would take hold. Annual rye was selected because it can germinate at very low temperatures, and we were afraid the native seed wouldn't germinate until the following spring."
Non-native seed is also much less expensive than native seed, and cost was a factor, she said. The three agencies shared the cost of the project, largely using grant money. The conservation district provided $13,000, ODFW gave $9,500 and BLM paid $9,000, she said.
Bob Plummer owns 25 acres that were scorched by the Siskiyou fire and later seeded with the native and non-native mixed seed. He's concerned by the amount of non-native grass growing on his property now, but he's glad the soil didn't erode, he said.
"I am concerned about how much grass grew," he said, "but it got roots in the ground so that was good."
Plummer plans to work with Lomakatsi Restoration Project to thin the oaks sprouting on his land and to fell hundreds of dead trees, to try to reduce the fire danger. He thinned portions of his land prior to the Siskiyou fire, which helped slow the spread of the fire and enabled some of the trees in the burned area to survive, Chambers said.
Lomakatsi director Marco Bey, who has done restoration work on another parcel that burned in the fire, said landowners can take steps to thin fuels now, in order to protect not only their land, but also the Ashland watershed.
"The Siskiyou fire was a snapshot of what could happen in the entire watershed, if fuels mitigation work isn't done," he said.
The fire danger in the area burned by the Siskiyou fire, the cause of which is still under investigation, will remain especially high over the next several years, as trees and shrubs begin to establish themselves, Chambers said.
"There's this increased biomass on the ground," he said. "It's going to be a challenge to prevent a repeat of the Siskiyou fire in the next five to 10 years."
Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-482-3456 ext. 226 or email@example.com.