A firefighter walks through a forest swathed in smoke.
Fire personnel worked together in May to light fuels in strategic patterns within the Ray Mesa prescribed burn, which was intend- ed to protect old growth Ponderosa pines. [Rachel Fixsen/Moab Sun News]

This is the first in 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 captured live early in 2022 in St. George and pertains to the impacts of wildfires on the land and its inhabitants. Panel members included Greg Melton (Utah Tech University Department of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Science), Mike Schijf (Biologist, Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan), and Jason Whipple (Director, Washington County Emergency Services).

Science Cafe: Can you each share a little bit about your background with wildfire science?

Greg Melton: I was deployed to a wildfire in Colorado, at a really high elevation, above 10,000 feet in South Park. Every day around mid-afternoon, a thunderstorm cell would move into our area. The safety guys would pull us off the line and wait for the storm to pass because we don’t want people out in the trees when there’s lightning. The winds get super erratic and it’s not a super safe situation. One particular day, we got pulled off and we sat there and watched this huge storm cell come rolling in. And right as it came over the top of the wildfire, the air convection that was coming off of that wildfire tipped the whole cell on its side and created a tornado, which is unheard of at 10,000 feet. In the mountains, that’s almost impossible. So there we were, sitting in our trucks watching a wildfire, huge hailstones coming down on us, and this tornado touches down in the middle of the wildfire. So that was fun. 

Mike Schijf: It’s gonna be tough to top that! But the reason I was invited today was to talk about some of the effects that we’ve seen from wildfires on our Mojave Desert. As a biologist for the Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan, I help manage the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. A huge challenge for us is trying to figure out how to best deal with the aftermath of fires that are often fueled by invasive species such as cheatgrass. Habitat loss is the number one threat facing the desert tortoise, and in our area more specifically, that has been from the threat of wildfire.

Jason Whipple: I’ve been mostly on the side where we run in and put the fire out; it’s a little bit of a shift 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 lot of my job is taking all of those elements and bringing them together so we can help to rehabilitate the land and still put out the fire in a way that’s healthy.

Science Cafe: How do we deal with invasive grasses?

Schijf: It’s really a challenge, especially depending on the timing of winter precipitation. Some years it’s just a carpet of cheatgrass out there. 100 years ago, the Mojave Desert didn’t have to contend with these huge fires sweeping through the landscape. We are starting to put more herbicides on the ground to reduce that heavy fuel load—one thing my department funded was going out on some of the utility right-of-ways in the reserve to put down herbicide to use as fire breaks.If they don’t completely halt the spread of a fire approaching those roads, hopefully they give firefighters more time to get there. Invasive grasses are incredibly resilient, so they’re probably still able to come back in many cases from wildfires, but a lot of the native shrubs are not able to come back as effectively.

Science Cafe: What do you do you if see a wildfire? Is there a point where it’s big enough that I could assume somebody else reported it?

Whipple: It’s always good to report a fire. If there are multiple reports, whoever answers your call may be a little bit short with you on the phone, but always report the fire. If you suspect that there’s a problem, then call it in, and fire staff will go out there and check it out. We’ve had barbecues called in, 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 a doubt, and you want to knock on the door, that’s one thing, but don’t hesitate to report any of that. If you see smoke, make the call.

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