Milford Flat fire in central Utah burns 160,000 acres in one day!

This fire in mostly juniper and cheatgrass (aka “june grass”) was fanned by high winds. It closed Interstate 15 for 95 miles. It contributed to the deaths of two people. The fire was started by lightning. It continues to grow. There is now an official government web site on the fire.

Milford Flat fire one of biggest in Utah history. By Nate Carlisle and Nathan C. Gonzalez. The Salt Lake Tribune

Milford Flat blaze creates dangerous area traffic. By Erin Alberty. The Salt Lake Tribune

Update: I-15 closed again, Milford Flat fire now burning more than 280,000 acres. By Nate Carlisle and Robert Gehrke. The Salt Lake Tribune

Update July 9. Milford Flat fire, Utah’s largest ever, sears its mark among nation’s worst. The Salt Lake Tribune.

Update July 9. Utah ablaze: Only 109 firefighters battling 282,287-acre Milford Flat Fire. By Laura Hancock. Deseret Morning News

Update July 10. Lighter winds help to hold Milford Flat fire to just over 300,000 acres. By Nate Carlisle and July Fahys. The Salt Lake Tribune.

Update July 11. Crews have contained 30 percent of blaze. Milford Flat Fire near 330,000 acres with afternoon winds and thunderstorms on the way. By Judy Fahys and Christopher Smart. The Salt Lake Tribune

Update July 12. Radioactive radiation rises from Milford Flat Fire. Cause unknown. By Judy Fahys and Christopher Smart. The Salt Lake Tribune

Update July 12. Crews contain 40 percent of 350,000-acre Milford Flat Fire. By Greg Lavine. The Salt Lake Tribune 

Note that most of these”early” fires are primarily range fires, not traditional forest fires. Range fires often move much faster than forest fires, and so they are more likely to overtake those who don’t flee fast enough.The size and frequency of range fires has been growing. Much of the change is due to the spread of non-native “cheat grass,” with which most interior Westerners are all too familiar. This fine-bladed grass begins to grow from the early summer’s seeds as soon as late summer, and they produce a lush swath of green grass in the spring. However, here is the “cheat.” By the next June (and with drying and warming climate, now as early as May 1) the cheatgrass has ripened, died, and is ready to generate a new wildfire that will regenerate the cheatgrass while the now-too-frequent fires eliminate its competition. Cheatgrass has changed the fire ecology of the West. The result is much for the worse for almost every human activity and for wildlife and plants.

I think a major public policy initiative is needed to stop its further spread and reclaim some of the country it has taken over. I have it on my property. It is very hard to get rid, other than temporarily, although it is slowly outcompeted by other plants if there is no fire.

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  1. Pronghorn Avatar

    I am in despair over cheat grass. On our property and adjacent lands, even leafy spurge can’t stand up to it, so it has not been my experience that it can be out-competed by anything else, at least not yet. Just today we walked to the back of our property–a long, skinny, steep 42 acres (takes an hour to get back there) to check it out prior to having the knapweed sprayed. Much to our dismay, it has gone over largely to cheat. The natives are struggling to hang on. I could have sat down and cried, literally, but would have gotten a butt full of cheat grass seeds.

    Cheat is extremely opportunistic. It sprouts in the autumn and over-winters, so it is the first thing to green up in the spring. Then, as Ralph noted, it ripens early and becomes excellent fire fuel. Unfortunately, when its seeds are ripe, it’s usually too risky to burn it to eliminate the seed crop, as wildfire season is impending. Its evil barbed seeds are the ones that stick in your socks and poke you. I know a dog who almost went blind from a cheat seed in her eye, and have heard of others who’ve had to have surgery to remove seeds that worked their way in-between their pads.

    We’ve worked for going on five years to restore native plants to the property around the house, and have attempted to control the spurge (once nearly a monoculture), only to watch cheat invade nearly every single area. Now, with fire season upon us and temps in the 90s and 100s, we are sitting ducks.

    Cheat not only changes fire ecology–it changes soil and hydrology. (Weeds are the number one threat to watersheds, according to one friend who is also a Forest Svc. hydrologist.) Since we can’t give up, the next plan is to mow the cheat to knock it down, bag what we can, and have the new growth commercially sprayed this autumn. Then, of course, we have to reseed immediately, and probably with something non-native, or else the niche will be filled in by more cheat or spurge. We’re in this for the long haul–but it requires more time and money than anyone should ever have to squander on something like weeds.

    I wasn’t aware that cheat grass is also called June grass (an insult to the very beautiful and desirable native June grass!); I think it might also be called downy brome. I called my friend, a weed specialist at the extension office, to tell her I was having nightmares about cheat grass, thinking I could find some sympathy. She thought she was helping by telling me she learned of something worse…Medusahead. Now I’m a nervous wreck, wondering when THAT one will show up.

  2. kt Avatar

    What is missing from the reports about the early and big fires in Utah, Nevada and other places is any mention of the role public lands livestock grazing has in both desertifiying sagebrush, pinyon-juniper and lower elevation forests, and also in promoting highly flammable weeds – especially cheatgrass.

    Cheatgrass thrives in areas of distrubance where cattle have depleted native vegetation and trampled microbiotic crusts. It provides a continuous fine fuel that causes fire to flash across the landscape.

    In higher elevation forests, grazing and trampling impacts to understories eliminate lush grasses – opening the plant community to tree seedling establishment. This leads to doghair thickets of way-too-dense small trees.

    In the face of Global Warming, with skyrocketing temperatures now a reality, continuing to graze cattle and sheep on public lands is sheer madness.

    I am betting this is going to be the year the National Forests and BLM lands in the Interior West are ALL closed to any public entry, due to extreme fire danger. Anybody want to guess how soon it will be?

  3. Buffaloed Avatar

    Here’s a good site with real-time information that I have found very useful and informative.

  4. TPageCO Avatar

    Cheatgrass is the worst plant I know of – I’ll happily take knapweed or crested wheat or thistle or anything else. It would be great to see some real money invested in research into cheatgrass control – it’s the death weed, seriously.

    Is there a website w good info on getting rid of cheat? We spray in the fall, but it’s tough to get anything to grow after spraying. We’ve had some success in killing the cheat, although the timing is tricky and it’s expensive, but it’s hard to get anything to grow in afterwards. As for reseeding, we can’t turn the ground b/c you then bring up more cheat seeds…

    I’ve heard from a couple sources that plastic in the spring after greenup followed by reseeding with something that germinates later can be effective, but if the patches are too big, plastic is not usable.

    A range fire on our place is my number one fear – our native range will get hammered by cheat if there’s a fire.

  5. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Just a quarter acre, maybe less, of dry cheat grass is a severe fire danger to adjacent structures.

    In many towns, most vacant lots are primarily covered with cheat grass.

    Cheat grass defeats native grass, forbs and shrubs, and most invaders too by grabbing the nitrogen and water first and then going to seed and burning and resprouting first too.

    If you eliminate it from your property and kill the seeds, it will usually blow in again from nearby.

    For those native plant communities still existing in the sagebrush steppe, it is essential that pioneering cheat grass be killed and certainly not grazed by livestock.

    This is perhaps the best argument for getting the cows off the intact public lands.

    Bulbous bluegrass (aka winter blue grass) is getting to be a real problem around SE Idaho too. It sprouts early like cheat grass, even grows slightly in winter, and is dry by May. Fortunately is it not quite as flammable as cheat grass.

    I think it invades areas grazed down to dirt even faster than cheat grass.

  6. clover Avatar

    KT; Where did you get your information that cows are the reason for cheatgrass? Ive never seen cheatgrass where my cows are kept.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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