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When it comes to wildfires, beware of dry grass — that's where most occur


There's an actual U.S. government agency called the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. That's right. It's made informational videos, like this one called, "Oh, It's Just A Grass Fire."


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Should you let yourself become more complacent on what you might perceive to be just another routine grass fire?


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: As you are about to see, such a mindset is a mistake.

CHANG: A mistake - you see, when we think of destructive wildfires, we might think of dense forests going up in smoke. But in West Maui, the deadliest wildfires in the U.S. in over a century were largely fueled by dry, nonnative grass. In fact, most wildfires aren't forest fires. That's something that Jeva Lange wrote about in a story for Heatmap, a news site tracking climate and energy. Welcome, Jeva.

JEVA LANGE: Hi. Thank you for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. So most wildfires are actually in the grasslands, you write. What kind of proportions are we looking at here?

LANGE: In a study of Western states between 1984 and 2020 - this looked at 11 states on the West Coast - only 35% of fires were actually in forests. So that's a lot of fires in grasslands.

CHANG: Right. And are grass fires different from forest fires? I mean, obviously, they start in different places, but are grass fires generally more intense or more destructive?

LANGE: Yeah. So I would think of grass fires sort of two ways. They're mechanically different and then psychologically different, if you will.


LANGE: So mechanically different in the sense that they start easily, they burn really fast, and they burn unpredictably. But they're also psychologically different than forest fires because they're really underestimated. They look like something you could just stomp out or put out with a hose, so both firefighters and residents tend to not really be thinking about them seriously.

CHANG: OK. Well, you say in your article that grass fires are a growing danger around the U.S. Can you explain why that is? Why is it a growing danger?

LANGE: So one of the things I hadn't realized when I started covering this story was that invasive grasses were the fuel behind the really dangerous and deadly fire in Maui. But they're also a problem in the western United States. There's European grasses that have been introduced to these landscapes for a variety of reasons that have now taken a foothold. They're outcompeting native plants, and they're spreading. And by one estimate, invasive grasses more than triple a region's susceptibility to wildfire. They're like a wick in the landscape for fire to spread into areas where it doesn't naturally belong as part of the ecosystem. So that's like deserts - also urban environments.

CHANG: Urban environments - I mean, do you see grass fires tend to erupt closer to cities and towns?

LANGE: Yeah. So some of the scariest recent U.S. wildfires have been grass fires. There's Maui, of course, but also in 2021, there was the Marshall Fire in Boulder. And this does not look like an area that you would think of as being a wildfire danger zone. The largest fires in both Nevada and Texas' histories were also grassland fires. So these are all over the western United States and creeping closer and closer to areas where we've built out into what are - what's referred to as the wildland-urban interface.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, what can communities do to better protect themselves from the danger of grass fires? Like, what practical steps can they take?

LANGE: What I hear over and over again from wildfire professionals I speak with is that Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service, agencies like these, need to stop prioritizing suppression and let good fires burn. And if we were to bring back farmlands around urban areas - admittedly, challenging - land use issues always are - but that would bring a buffer back. And then one last option would be figuring out a way to keep grass shorter. But you can't really be, like, mowing these hillsides. They're rocky. They're steep. So one idea is something called strategic grazing, which - I love that term, but it's what it sounds like. It's...

CHANG: Goats?

LANGE: Exactly. Yes. Goats, cattle, sheep, animals out in the landscape that are keeping the grass under control.

CHANG: All right. Bring out the livestock.


CHANG: Jeva Lange is a staff writer at Heatmap. Thank you so much, Jeva.

LANGE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gurjit Kaur
Gurjit Kaur is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. A pop culture nerd, her work primarily focuses on television, film and music.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.