Teaming Up to Take On the Double Threat of Invasives and Wildfires

National Park Service fire and aviation management personnel monitor a prescribed fire in Florida from the air.

The National Park Service uses prescribed fire in south Florida to target non-native invasive plants. Photo by M. Gue, NPS.


Those living in the “sagebrush sea” in the western United States know how important sagebrush habitat is to hundreds of treasured fish and wildlife species, including sage-grouse, elk, and Lahontan cutthroat trout. This iconic landscape—and others like it across the nation—could be forever changed because of invasive species and wildfire.

The nation’s communities, natural landscapes, and cultural resources face a dual threat posed by the combination of invasive species and wildfire. What is the connection between these two threats? Invasive plants such as cheatgrass, buffelgrass, and salt cedar can fuel wildfires, accelerate their spread, and increase the likelihood of unusually severe wildfires. 

The cycle is perpetuated by wildfires, which provide a blank canvas for non-native species to invade or even re-invade. Often, invasive plants have an advantage over native vegetation as they can get an early foothold after a wildfire. For example, in the first 20 years after a wildfire, cheatgrass can increase by two to five times as much as in unburned areas.

Additionally, firefighters may unknowingly spread invasive species while responding to wildfires. For example, they could unintentionally bring in the seeds of invasive plants on their gear and equipment or transport water with aquatic invasive species to new locations. 

To address these issues, the Interior Department’s Office of Wildland Fire, Office of Policy Analysis, and bureaus are working with other federal agencies through a joint Wildland Fire Leadership Council and National Invasive Species Council initiative. Their goal? To reduce the probability of harm to communities, landscapes, and cultural resources from these dual threats. 

Together, we have identified a framework to combat these threats in an integrated way. Highlights of that framework include: 

  • Coordination: Coordinate strategic planning and implementation of invasive species and wildfire management activities across federal agencies and partners. 
  • Geospatial Mapping: Use the best available information to develop spatially-zoned wildland fire and invasive plant management strategies to target management actions with available resources. 
  • Defend the Core Approach: Undertake early, aggressive invasive plant management as a preventative measure to sustain resilient, resistant native plant communities and natural wildfire patterns.
  • Restoration and Recovery: Provide guidance and support to local management transitioning from short-term post-fire activity to long-term restoration and recovery strategies to break the wildfire and invasive plant cycle.
  • Research and Decision Support: Support research that informs management of invasive species and wildland fire at an eco-regional level to better integrate invasive plant control and prescribed burning in decision-making for productive forests, fire-dependent ecosystems, and restoration.

Together, these measures will help reduce the spread of invasive plants. With fewer invasives to fuel them, wildfires should burn less frequently and at a lower intensity, in turn reducing opportunities for invasives to get a new foothold.

How can we start to put these integrated measures for invasive species and wildfire management into action? One way is through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which provides an unprecedented opportunity to advance many of these priorities. Investments of $50 million for sagebrush steppe conservation, $905 million for ecosystem restoration, and nearly $1.5 billion for wildland fire management will include efforts to address invasive species that fuel wildfires.

The Interior Department looks forward to continued collaboration through the joint Wildland Fire Leadership Council and National Invasive Species Council initiative and with our state, local, Tribal, and other partners to address wildfire and invasive species.

Through these efforts, we will help to protect iconic landscapes, such as the Sonoran Desert with its Saguaro cacti, elf owls, and Gila woodpeckers, for generations to come.

Kristy Swartz is a Wildland Fire Program Specialist with the Department of the Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire.

Hilary Smith is the Senior Advisor for Invasive Species with Interior’s Office of Policy Analysis.

They both apply their early career field experiences (Kristy running a chainsaw, spraying weeds, and implementing prescribed fires and Hilary leading early detection and rapid response programs in collaboration with partners) to drafting policy and developing plans in support of staff out in the field today.