On March 16th 2012, motorists on a busy highway in Western New York were alarmed to see flames soaring 15-20 feet in the air. An unusual winter with low precipitation and a downed power line caused a very dry Phragmites stand to catch fire, scorching several acres of Phragmites and brush. This fire resulted in low visibility on a major highway causing it to back up for hours. The fire traversed the dry marsh, which consisted almost entirely of Phragmites, and burned for over 6 hours. As the flames approached traffic, first responders used water to prevent it from crossing the highway. Experts say that this type of fire has to die out on its own, while responders make sure residents are not in harm’s way.
The dry stalks of Phragmites are highly flammable. In March 2011, 160 acres of Phragmites burned at Great Lakes Crossing Mall in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Smoke and fire were so intense that I-75 was closed and homes and businesses were evacuated. Phragmites was the fuel for another fire the following year near the same location in March of 2012. On April 4, 2013, a Phragmites fire on Harsens Island burned 150 acres. The heat during this event was so intense it was burning the equipment used by the firefighters. The fire chief reported that Phragmites fires burn very hot, at temperatures up to 2000 degrees, and generate their own wind, which can quickly expand the fire zone. Firefighters report that vinyl siding and windows on homes at less than 500 feet from the blazes could melt.
Phragmites is both opportunistic and aggressive, filling natural and artificial wetlands, road side ditches, and disturbed wet areas around development. Not only does it harm wetlands by choking out native plants, which wildlife need for food and shelter, reducing biodiversity, and harming ecosystems, but the nature of the dry stalks and density in which it grows present a potentially dangerous risk to structure and human life in the wrong conditions. Phragmites control as fire-risk prevention should be investigated, at least in high risk areas such as densely populated areas, areas near flammable structures, and areas where it is dry or potential ignition sources exist.
These instances of uncontrolled Phragmites fires should not be confused with the prescribed fires that are often used as part of a Phragmites management regimen. Prescribed fires are planned and controlled to ensure surrounding homes, businesses, and roads are not impacted.
Information for this blog post comes from the Buffalo News and the Oakland Phragmites and Invasive Species (OPIS) Task Force.