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Rangeland officials were assessing the damage from the largest wildfire in the state's history, which charred more than 350,000 acres in Beaver and Millard counties in July, when they made a startling discovery.
Kochia, a small shrub planted after the fires of 1984, actually stopped the inferno in its path - a revelation that gives some hope in limiting the spread of future wildfires.
"It's a miracle plant," says research geneticist Blair Waldron with the federal Agriculture Research Service, of forage kochia (pronounced KO-chuh).
The 1984 Clearspot fire had burned 18,000 acres in Millard County so badly the rangelands turned into a dust bowl. For the next six years the area kicked up dust clouds that drifted as far away as Salt Lake City. Reseeding efforts to restore the burned-out land largely failed. But in the late 1980s, researchers planted a 15-acre plot of kochia about 10 miles west of Kanosh in the epicenter of the dust bowl.
When officials returned to the area last month, they discovered the recent Milford Flat wildfire had burned right up to but could not burn through the kochia plot, which had thrived and spread during the ensuing years. The kochia also protected native shrubs such as shadscale. Other plants just outside the plot were destroyed.
Waldron had expected as much. Years of studies and experience show that the succulent kochia reduces the length and intensity of flames or stops wildfires outright.
"None of us were surprised," said plant geneticist Mike Peel with the Research Service. "But the area was in much better condition than we had expected."
Experts are advising that kochia, along with crested or Siberian wheatgrass and Russian wildrye should make up 75 percent of reseeding mixes on harsh, dry desert ranges. Seeds from several native species had been planted after the 1984 fire, but only winterfat was able to grow in the degraded dust bowl area, officials said.
Kochia also turns eroded lands into a food preserve for wildlife and cattle. And it can compete with cheatgrass, an invasive plant that depletes the soil and fuels wildfires.
Still, ranchers have been slow to plant forage kochia, perhaps because it's not a native species and it is often confused with its invasive, noxious distant cousin: kochia scoparia. Scoparia, an annual, is sometimes dubbed firebush because of its red fall foliage.
On the other hand, forage kochia is a perennial shrub that tolerates drought and flourishes on salty or alkaline soils. Experts say it seems to thrive on poor-quality soils damaged by wildfire, overgrazing and off-road vehicles.
"We sell all the seeds we can get," said Ron Stevenson president of Stevenson Intermountain Seed Inc., in Ephraim. "Some years we could sell more."
Companies such as Granite Seed in Lehi and Wheatland West Seed in Brigham City are expecting runs when the planting season begins this fall. Because seeds are likely to outstrip supply, land managers are recommending planting kochia only as firebreaks.
Geneticist Waldron said it's crucial that charred lands be replanted this year - before invasive species such as cheatgrass take over. "It is important to understand that even one inch of lost soil can take thousands of years to replace."
* Native to Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
* Perennial, semi-evergreen shrub.
* Serves as a green strip or firebreak in fire-prone areas.
* High-protein forage for wildlife, birds, sheep and cattle.
* Not to be confused with noxious, annual kochia scoparia.
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture