Ranchers devastated by Nevada's worst fire season; 1.6 million acres burned; 'ecological disaster' linked to exotic grass; The Nation


PINE VALLEY, Nev. -- LeRoy and Sandy Sestanovich ran their eyes over the Nevada range land his family has ranched for a half-century. It looked like a charred piece of toast.

There was no life, only the blackened skeletons of juniper trees and the scorched stumps of sagebrush. In a canyon lay the remains of one of their bulls, a dried-out hide draped over bones in a hauntingly stark image.

In what is by far the worst fire season on record in this arid state, about 1.6 million acres of northern Nevada burned last summer, an area twice the size of Rhode Island.

No one was killed by the fires, and few buildings were destroyed. But federal grazing land used by scores of ranchers was incinerated, along with food and shelter for wildlife.

"People just don't understand unless they've been out there," said Chris Healy, public information officer for the Nevada Division of Wildlife. "They also think in a couple of years it's going to be OK. But you know what? It's not."

Steep canyon slopes are bare, ready to send mudslides and floodwaters onto roads and valley ranches during winter storms.

About 1,500 wild horses are being rounded up for adoption or removal to other areas because there is nothing for them to eat on much of their traditional winter range. Dust storms have caused two highway deaths. Hundreds of miles of fence need repair, and livestock water systems need to be fixed.

So many acres burned that federal authorities can't get their hands on enough of some seed types to replant the baked earth.

And vast stretches of Nevada scrubland are empty, waiting for the invasion of cheat grass, a central Asian plant that is slowly transforming parts of the Great Basin, replacing the classic gray-green of sagebrush with brown, dried-out stalks that burn like tinder, setting the stage for more huge wildfires.

"It's an ecologic disaster, and it's an open-ended one," federal research scientist Jim Young warned of the steady creep of cheat grass across the scrubland. "There's a groundswell that something has to be done. But nobody knows what to do."

Young, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says that in the 1960s, less than 1 percent of the state's 19 million acres of sagebrush land had cheat grass growing on it. Now he estimates a quarter of that acreage is dominated by the exotic grass, which was introduced to Nevada about the turn of the century.

Cheat grass is largely blamed for the accelerating cycle of wildfires in Nevada. The amount of federal Bureau of Land Management acreage burned since 1990 is more than all the land burned during the previous 44 years.

The worst of this year's fires swept over the northern part of the state in early August, when dry lightning strikes ignited the desert floor, and hot dry winds pushed long fronts of flames across the scrubland and into the mountains.

At one point, more than 100 wildfires were burning at the same time, overwhelming firefighters.

Fires raged around the Sestanovich ranch in Pine Valley south of Carlin for five straight days. "I've never seen one that lasted that long and was that thorough. I really couldn't believe that it was keeping on like that," said LeRoy Sestanovich, 47.

The Department of Agriculture has declared five northern counties disaster areas, making ranchers eligible for low-interest loans and grants. Cattlemen are selling some livestock and paying neighbors to graze cattle on private pasture or unused portions of federal allotments that escaped the fires.

To stabilize soil and try to thwart the advance of cheat grass in the most susceptible areas, the Bureau of Land Management plans to reseed nearly 500,000 acres with perennial grasses and some shrubs, both from the air and with range land drills that dig furrows in the ground and then drop in the seeds.

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