Homeowners can help save their houses — and the desert, too — by clearing nonnative plants that have invaded the Sonoran Desert.
Nonnative plants have greatly increased the destructive potential of wildfires in recent decades, adding fuel in a place where there had been little to burn until humans arrived.
"Desert fires are a very recent phenomena — we’ve been seeing them since about the late ’70s," said Cecil R. Schwalbe, a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Desert Research Station in Tucson. "The culprits are nonnative plants."
Schwalbe spread the warning about nonnative plants at Saturday’s Fire Awareness Day at McDowell Mountain Regional Park. The event marked the 10th anniversary of the Rio fire that charred about 23,000 acres. More than 14,000 acres of that fire was within the park’s boundaries, said Paul "Crash" Marusich, an interpretive ranger at the park.
Nonnative plants played a major role in that fire’s destructive power, as well as the Cave Creek Complex fire that’s still burning north of Scottsdale and Carefree. It has ravaged more than 248,000 acres.
One of the nonnative plants that concerns ecologists is red brome grass. It dries quickly and helped fuel flames in some portions of the Cave Creek Complex fire.
Marusich illustrated the problem Saturday by leading a group of hikers up Lousley Hill, pointing out the areas where the Rio fire hit and places it bypassed.
Event organizers also urged homeowners to protect their homes from wildfires. A key to blocking flames from structures is setting up a firebreak of rocks or water, said Alix Rogstad, fire education specialist at the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension.
He also suggested homeowners start a community fire prevention program.