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Meadows and fire hazard?

 
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We're in an area which tends to have lots of rain in the winter, and a drought in the summer. In a really bad summer, by mid-Sept things can be tinder dry.
So I sort of have two questions:
1. I know that having more of a "meadow" rather than 4" grass will both build the soil and shade the soil better, but in the short term, the plants still die back. How much riskier are those longer/taller dry plants than short dry grass?
2. If you were to cut the tall grass and just leave it lying down, would that increase, decrease or have no effect on the risk?

 
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I have experienced the fight with a wildfire once in my life. A wind-driven grass fire is bloody terrifying, and takes no prisoners. Never again.

I think it's useful to think of the fuel-to-air mix in different scenarios.

Here's my bad science: Standing dry grass offers the highest ratio of heat, oxygen, and fuel per unit of space.

Tall, dry grass chopped down to the ground will burn vigorously, but more slowly; its density and underlying soil moisture moderate the burn and it doesn't have the full oxygen blowtorch.

Mowed grass stubble, though dry, will burn; but in a controllable manner. That is, if you're watching -- it will creep along.

To my mind, the question is: how can you create "halt lines" that will allow you (and your neighbours) to protect what matters?

My 2 cents.
 
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I agree with Douglas. A fire creates its own weather, and a grass fire is no different. Hot air rises, cooler air rushes in to replace it, fanning the flames. Any breeze simply worsens it. I once did a very controlled burn on a dry grass lawn and scorched the siding on a house. Just a quick gust of wind and the flames rolled 10’ in a second. The spray from the hose in my hand was not as fast as the flames. Terrifying. Is there anything you can plant that will stay green and moist, either as a break or simply interspersed?
 
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In OZ it has been reported that replacing introduced grasses with the original local species creates fuel loads that can be 80% lower. So I have read...
 
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Jay,

I largely agree with Douglas—dry standing grass fires start and spread very quickly.  I think seasonal mowing is your friend.  And keeping a mowed path while not exactly a fire break might at least be a fire slow zone.

I have heard of some disking or plowing rows to serve as more of a fire stop.  

Fire out of control is some scary stuff!

Eric
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Agreed, a strip of tilled soil is the gold standard as a fire break. The wider the better.

Since you would have to control the vegetation anyway, this could readily be disguised as (gasp!) a conventional rototilled garden.
 
Eric Hanson
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Jay,

Another thought.  In addition to a tilled strip, paths mowed and maintained through the meadow will at least slow down a fire, especially if the grass is green.  If you could possibly seed with some low growing, drought resistant grass varieties you might be able to keep green firebreaks even during times of drought.  The two species I am thinking about are zoysia grass (very low growing and drought resistant) or buffalo grass (about 6” tall and quite drought resistant).  

Either could be a winner, but a tilled strip beats all.

Eric
 
Jay Angler
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Clearly, this needs to continue to be a thinking project. Our back field is only 200 ft wide, but it's quite long. The whole area is surrounded by 60- 80ft Doug Fir and Cedar forest plus undergrowth. We are forced to irrigate the lower field due to animals, but at least with the improvement in the soil over the last 10 years, and my policy of irrigating it *very* deeply when I do and then letting it go 3-4 weeks in an effort to *really* encourage deep roots, so fire risk in that area is probably only mild to moderate on a bad drought year.

The upper field with it's thin soil and an excess of rocks is where I'd love to protect the soil with much taller grass, but clearly the fire risk isn't worth it. I will do some research on zoysia and buffalo grasses. Trying to get enough irrigation up there in the summer to get something like daikon radish planted for soil repair in late August could possibly be done area by area also. Daikon grows quite tall if it's happy and a dense strip of that would block the wind and hopefully be wet enough to discourage a fire from spreading.

We will keep thinking of options!
 
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Please consider an Internet search for "Jack Cohen wildfire".  He was a wildfire scientist with the Forest Service and is now I think associated with the National Fire  Protection Association (NFPA).  Much of his work focused on the ignition of buildings during wildfire, but his presentations often reference actual data, which provides a more accurate picture of the wildfire processes than you would otherwise have.  

One learning relevant to your situation is that wildfires have the potential of creating ember storms (which, by the way, is one of the primary mechanisms for building ignition) which can be blown something like a half mile from the fire.  So if there are  fuels that can  be ignited by embers, such as your meadow, they may still catch fire even if there are fire breaks that stop the progression of ground fires.  I suggest you consider the strategy of protecting things of value assuming that the meadow burns.  The NFPA explains how to make buildings fire resistant - it really isn't very difficult.  And I think their recommendations might provide good guidance on what to do with other valuables.  Protecting animals and people within a wildfire is relatively difficult because they have a much lower tolerance to heat than plants and dead materials.

FWIW, I recall Jack Cohen saying that deciduous trees are incapable of maintaining a crown fire, but I don't have a reference.

 
Jay Angler
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Greg Deitrick wrote:

FWIW, I recall Jack Cohen saying that deciduous trees are incapable of maintaining a crown fire, but I don't have a reference.

I also remember something about how mixed deciduous/coniferous forests had a much lower tendency to create really bad fires and attributed that fact to the deciduous trees. Jacke's "Edible Forest Gardens" has a section specifically about fire resistant plants, so it is certainly possible to help nature reduce the risk.
 
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My defective mouse/computer just destroyed three attempts at writing this response, so sorry it's probably scattered.

If you're thinking grasses are too risky, maybe the area shouldn't be a meadow in the first place.  I'm mostly suspicious because European settler stereotypes were very good at creating hazardous terrains that after a while just seemed like parts of the landscape - like excessive amounts of Cottonwood, or blackberry thickets.  I live on the coast, not in the interior PNW, but the since most of the land was altered in some 'standard European' way, it may be that grasses, as a starting point, might be more foreign than one thinks, and a lot more overall work.
Orchard trees with some easy natives and deep rooted crops might be better.  (No grasses though, they compete for water with the shallow rooted trees.)  Also animals (especially ducks) can deal with fallen fruit, even when there's a decent understory, and we have such great, easy to grow understory options in the PNW, no matter which ecosystem you talk about.  If you don't want fallen fruit, perhaps staghorn sumac or... maybe Osoberry?

Apios Americana always interested me for its possible integration into PNW shrubby areas.  It's a climber with a root crop.  Burkina Bambara beans from Richters Seeds might work too: as a stop-gap measure, a groundnut that grows well with dry hot summers and wet winters is pretty 'clutch'.  (You seem to think the soil is deep enough for daikon, so I assume root crops are ok.)
No matter how I try (and admittedly it's been a while since I've been to the interior) I just can't imagine a 'natural meadow' in the PNW that is mostly a grass based system.  The summers just don't (aside from this year to date!) permit it, without a natural high water table, and in the rainy season(s), you lose soil nutrition because the root systems are, while thick, not deep enough to retain/reclaim anything.  While there are a lot of grasses out there, they aren't necessarily all there because of any sustainable cycle that bears imitation.  I wonder if there is any real data available as to if the famed "controlled burns" done by first nations ever had to deal with as much grassland as there is now, even outside of populated areas.  In thinking about our terrifying fire season, the altered landscape might need a bigger fix than planting different grasses.  You may need things that don't just shove all the extra moisture into larger and larger leaves in the spring, only to create an even larger amount of fuel in the summer.  That kind of solution would lead more to fire-resistance than fire-management.
 
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My experience with wildfire in the arid west, is that if it's dry enough to burn, then all the grass, forbs, and shrubs burn regardless of species. Cedar and juniper burn if they are low enough to the ground to be ignited by the grass fire. Often times, the fire will flash through a tree scouring out only the dead needles, but the tree survives basically unscathed. In hotter fires, nearly all the trees succumb to the fire.

My fire management strategy was that wildfire would eventually run through my place. Therefore, only bare dirt was allowed within 5 feet of the cabin. The outside of the building was only metal and glass. Between 5 feet and 30 feet only grass/forbs were allowed to grow. Between 30 feet and 100 feet, the trees were pruned, so that no branches were within 6 feet of the ground. And there were no ladder fuels (like shrubbery) under the trees. Within 100 feet, the trees were thinned, to about 30 feet apart, so that if one tree caught fire, it was much less likely to catch it's neighbor on fire. The basic strategy was for the fire near the cabin to be a low-intensity event rather than a raging inferno.  I know that a grass fire seems like a high-intensity event if caught in the middle of one, but a crown-fire is a whole different event!





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everything burns
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day or night
day or night
 
Geoff Colpitts
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If you're on the pacific west coast, then be sure you've read Paul Stametz' bits on fire prevention (it's in his big book, don't know where else).  Useful stuff, although mostly about brushpile management, but in terms of how those fires start, it's a good source on 'not screwing up in the first place', and provides a decent "food for thought" starting point.  I know there are also natural wildfires, but brushpile fires start close to home by definition.

I'm also expecting him to claim that mushrooms prevent forest fires... which is probably true in some way or another.  He was in forestry before going into mycology, after all.  It's been a while since I read the book.

In a lot of ways, I believe that the west coast isn't really meant to support meadows to any large extent (depending on the location: the interior and the sunshine coast more-so than the coast, north, and islands, but certainly a lot of the interior has been altered pretty severely.)  Not sure what you're doing with the area, but I wonder if the first-nations that used controlled burns were actually having to deal with large meadows on cleared land - basically I'm just saying that you have to be pretty sure you need a meadow.  Out of control wildfires can end up just a result of having altered the ecosystem, and it might not matter if you have one kind of grass or another in the long run, supposing that the surrounding area can't 'support' a meadow without the threat of severe fires.

I've not been able to find information on whether or not some sort of compromise solution (I'm thinking orchard rather than meadow) would be less susceptible to fire.  I imagine it could be, especially since orchard management is more about dealing with fallen fruit (ducks basically), and orchards do not co-operate well with short-rooted grasses, so you'd ideally end up with small shrubs, long rooted things, and obviously fruit trees, and even in a drought those don't spell "severe fire risk" to me, seeing as you have a mix of shade, natural water management, and hopefully some native species.

That's my 8 cents, at least.
 
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Succulents? If you don't water them, succulents do get unhappy, but stay a bit moist. I have an unwatered aloe vera that lives on from year to year in summer-dry California. Ice plant naturalizes at Point Reyes, which is cooler and moister than the East Bay where I live, but gets no summer rain.

https://debraleebaldwin.com/succulent-landscape/succulents-saved-day-says-wildfire-survivor/  
"Clearly more research is needed, ...What I can say with certainty is that planting a swath of moisture-rich, fleshy-leaved plants is smart if you live in a mild, arid region plagued by drought and wildfire. Readily available agaves, aeoniums, elephant’s food, aloes, jade, and ironically-named ‘Sticks on Fire’ propagate easily from pups and cuttings, are low-water and low-maintenance, and when combined, create a gorgeous garden. If it also serves as a firebreak, well—as I told a KFMB-TV reporter—that’s certainly icing on the cake."

 
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For a piece of the answer, contact your local fire district on mitigating the risks.  With that answer, you can work toward a balanced approach. Of course, you will have to decide where the balance point is.
 
Geoff Colpitts
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Rachel Findley wrote:Succulents? If you don't water them, succulents do get unhappy, but stay a bit moist. I have an unwatered aloe vera that lives on from year to year in summer-dry California. Ice plant naturalizes at Point Reyes, which is cooler and moister than the East Bay where I live, but gets no summer rain.



Hens and chicks is probably the equivalent in the PNW.  Also edible, apparently.
 
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My question builds on this one.... WHEN to mow the tall native grass for best critter (insect) comforts?  West Texas, ~5400 feet, cane bluestem/ grama/ sideoats and their associates...  Winter mowing has always been the idea-- to do it before the ground-nesting birds show up (night hawks,) but there's (happily) a lot of messaging circulating now about keeping the dead grasses over the winter for insect hidey-holes, and I want to keep the bug friends happy and healthy too.  Is there some magic week just before birds arrive, but after insects are done using those grass stems.... Or, no magic week but rather too much overlap to mow at all?  

We do have lots of trails through the grassy valley downward and westward from our house, so with a non-windy fire those are breaks...  Maybe no mowing at all, for the above critter-need reasons?
 
Jay Angler
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Jessie Kelsch wrote:My question builds on this one.... WHEN to mow the tall native grass for best critter (insect) comforts?  West Texas, ~5400 feet, cane bluestem/ grama/ sideoats and their associates...  Winter mowing has always been the idea-- to do it before the ground-nesting birds show up (night hawks,) but there's (happily) a lot of messaging circulating now about keeping the dead grasses over the winter for insect hidey-holes, and I want to keep the bug friends happy and healthy too.  Is there some magic week just before birds arrive, but after insects are done using those grass stems.... Or, no magic week but rather too much overlap to mow at all?  

We do have lots of trails through the grassy valley downward and westward from our house, so with a non-windy fire those are breaks...  Maybe no mowing at all, for the above critter-need reasons?

I'm not familiar with your ecosystem, but have you considered  mowing some fire-break "strips"? Leaving sufficient tall grass in blocks large enough for insects and birds? I have read of farmers on the Canadian Prairies planting a couple of combine widths of one crop, a couple more double widths of two other crops and then a double width of "bird seed" - things like sunflowers, some native plants etc. There has been a healthy increase in diversity, particularly of ground nesting birds. That's about all I can remember, but I suspect there would be more info on the web somewhere. Disturbed landscapes are often more productive than ones left completely alone, it's just trying and observing how much disturbance does the job. This is the same principle of mob grazing, although animals do it much better than machines from what I've read. But we don't have the massive herds of buffalo or elk to do it for us anymore in most regions. What would nature have been doing in your ecosystem 400 years ago with or without the help of Indigenous People?
 
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