SALT LAKE CITY — A lightning strike sparked vegetation on the east side of the Great Salt Lake on Friday afternoon and within hours the Legacy Fire grew to more than a few hundred acres. The reason why the fire kicked up a massive plume of smoke and produced nearly one-hundred foot flames: Phragmites.
“Phragmites is a grass-like plant that grows in extremely dense colonies, it can be 12 to 16 feet tall, it grows so thick you can barely walk through it, sometimes you can barely get heavy machinery through it,” said Drew Potter, Vegetation Restoration Coordinator with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. “This plant is very good at surviving and its very unfortunate because it does compromise the quality of some of our most valuable habitat for wildlife and waterfowl and migratory birds.”
Potter says that phragmites, a non-native species in Utah, has been a growing problem for the last two decades or so. They outcompete native plants and start growing quickly in wetlands. They’ve become such a dominant species on the east side of the Great Salt Lake, they could lead to a significant change to the entire ecosystem.
“It is just impossible to kill in a year, it takes multiple means, it takes mechanical removal and grazing as well as chemical applications, it’s just a very robust species that takes over some of our most valuable habitat,” said Potter, who just returned from California fighting fire with the Alta Hotshots.
As of last check, the Legacy Fire burned just shy of 1,500 acres and is roughly 80% contained. The entire area burned was (and is) consumed by phragmites.
“There’s just as much below ground so this fire probably did very little to affect the root system,” said Potter.