Post-blaze rehabilitation is one of the most difficult but crucial aspects of rangeland fires.
If rehab isn't successful, damaged land becomes more of a fire hazard than ever due to invasion from the highly flammable cheatgrass that often dominates rangeland in the West.
"I've come to realize I know a lot of the questions and damn few of the answers," said Dr. James Young, an ecologist with the federal Agriculture Research Service who has studied the spread of Eurasian cheatgrass for more than four decades.
The invasive grass was introduced in America in the late 19th century and has been the bane of firefighters since. It grows quickly, takes over natural vegetation, dries out early in the summer and is ripe for fire throughout the season.
Cheatgrass-fighting efforts began in earnest in 1964, Young said, when it led to the burning of 300,000 acres. But the problem has only increased since then.
"Now, 300,000 acres wouldn't even make the headlines," Young said.
Federal and state land managers spend millions of dollars a year trying to restore fire-ravaged land in attempt to stem the dominance of cheatgrass, which normally spreads throughout burned range.
They rarely are successful for a variety of reasons. The most glaring is that, in most years, fires take out more vegetation than anyone can replace.
In 1999, when wildfire charred nearly 1.9 million acres in Nevada, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management bought the entire supply of native Nevadan seeds for the 1.6 million acres of BLM land that burned. That was enough for about 5 percent of what the bureau was trying to rehabilitate.
The BLM later bought out the entire seed market of any non-noxious plant that could grow in the state's arid rangeland.
In total, enough seed to cover about 30 percent of damaged BLM land was purchased, according to David Thawley, dean of the University of Nevada, Reno's college of agriculture.
The rest of the charred land was left open to cheatgrass and the specter of becoming a fire hazard the next year.
The high demand for native seeds to rehabilitate charred land has spurred interest among researchers and farmers in Churchill County, where for the last couple of years UNR Cooperative Extension officials and local growers have been trying to determine how to efficiently grow and cultivate native seeds.
Thawley said the high-priced crop, which consumes as little as 25 percent of the water that mainstay alfalfa requires, could be a boon to Nevada farmers whose water allotments become ever more precarious each year.
Soon, the Natural Resources Conservation Service will join in on the research, with a plant materials center being developed on the UNR's agricultural research farm just south of Fallon.
The university is providing the land for the center, and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., secured a $500,000 appropriation to fund it.
The NRCS will use its heftier federal budget to research how best to grow and cultivate native seeds. Eventually, what seeds the service produces in Fallon will be sent to multipliers to cultivate yet more seed for sale to farmers, who will then grow and sell seed to the federal agencies that need it.
Even if farmers mass produce native seeds, however, Young says land rehabilitation will be an uphill battle.
The competitive cheatgrass, which dries up early in the summer, providing far better fire fuel than native grasses, has a strong hold on land in the West.
Native grasses do resist encroaching cheatgrass if they are fairly well established. The problem is native grasses have a far slower maturation process than cheatgrass. Cheatgrass can be mature and already drying before many native grasses have sprouted at all.
Still, reseeding is the best chance fire-conscious land managers have, Young said. Other methods, such as prescribed burning, are dangerous or open the way for more cheatgrass.
"If it was easy, somebody would have figured it all out a long time ago," Young said.
Cory McConnell can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org