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Grassification and fast-evolving fire connectivity and risk in the Sonoran Desert, United States

October 26, 2021

In the southwestern United States, non-native grass invasions have increased wildfire occurrence in deserts and the likelihood of fire spread to and from other biomes with disparate fire regimes. The elevational transition between desertscrub and montane grasslands, woodlands, and forests generally occurs at ∼1,200 masl and has experienced fast suburbanization and an expanding wildland-urban interface (WUI). In summer 2020, the Bighorn Fire in the Santa Catalina Mountains burned 486 km2 and prompted alerts and evacuations along a 40-km stretch of WUI below 1,200 masl on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona, a metropolitan area of >1M people. To better understand the changing nature of the WUI here and elsewhere in the region, we took a multidimensional and timely approach to assess fire dynamics along the Desertscrub-Semi-desert Grassland ecotone in the Catalina foothills, which is in various stages of non-native grass invasion. The Bighorn Fire was principally a forest fire driven by a long-history of fire suppression, accumulation of fine fuels following a wet winter and spring, and two decades of hotter droughts, culminating in the hottest and second driest summer in the 125-yr Tucson weather record. Saguaro (Carnegia gigantea), a giant columnar cactus, experienced high mortality. Resprouting by several desert shrub species may confer some post-fire resiliency in desertscrub. Buffelgrass and other non-native species played a minor role in carrying the fire due to the patchiness of infestation at the upper edge of the Desertscrub biome. Coupled state-and-transition fire-spread simulation models suggest a marked increase in both burned area and fire frequency if buffelgrass patches continue to expand and coalesce at the Desertscrub/Semi-desert Grassland interface. A survey of area residents six months after the fire showed awareness of buffelgrass was significantly higher among residents that were evacuated or lost recreation access, with higher awareness of fire risk, saguaro loss and declining property values, in that order. Sustained and timely efforts to document and assess fast-evolving fire connectivity due to grass invasions, and social awareness and perceptions, are needed to understand and motivate mitigation of an increasingly fire-prone future in the region.

Publication Year 2021
Title Grassification and fast-evolving fire connectivity and risk in the Sonoran Desert, United States
DOI 10.3389/fevo.2021.655561
Authors Benjamin T. Wilder, Catherine S. Jarnevich, Elizabeth Baldwin, Joseph S. Black, Kim A. Franklin, Perry Grissom, Katherine Hovanes, Aaryn Olsson, Jim Malusa, Abu S.M.G. Kibria, Yue M. Li, Aaron M. Lien, Alejandro Ponce, Julia A. Rowe, Jose Soto, Maya Stahl, Nicholas Young, Julio L. Betancourt
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution
Index ID 70228895
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Fort Collins Science Center