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Controlled Burn On UCSB’s Lagoon Island Fuels Effort to Smoke Out Invasive Plant

Land restoration researchers are seeking the best way to eradicate ripgut grass that is choking out native vegetation

You’ve probably found them in your socks. Or your dog’s fur after a walk on a coastal path. The spiky, sometimes painful seeds from the golden, pillowy grass that coats most of Santa Barbara’s coastal zone was the target of a scheduled burn Thursday at UCSB’s Lagoon Island. The invasive plant is not only a nuisance, it also chokes out native vegetation.

It’s the overwhelming and omnipresent bromus diandrus plant, or ripgut grass, and its life may have gotten a lot harder after Thursday’s burn. Although about 20 firefighters burned away about a quarter-acre of the grass, the purpose was not to burn the grass off the entire island, but to use a small space as a case study of sorts to see how the grass can most effectively be destroyed.

The Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration has been experimenting for three years with how to get rid of the grass, and is hypothesizing that if the grass is burned at high temperatures of 200 to 500 degrees, it will kill the stubborn seeds that make the plant so hard to deal with.

CCBER works as on-campus land managers for open space at the university, and is also working on several mitigation projects related to new development on campus, such as managing a storm water system for the San Clemente dormitories, according to Darwin Richardson, who works as a natural areas steward.

The group discovered it would have to add fuel to the fire to make it burn that hot, and placed special tiles covered in heat sensitive paint in the area to ensure the high temperatures.

Only five areas in the world have climates like that of Santa Barbara, and the grass is a problem in those places as well.

“It’s from Eurasia, and it’s also very invasive in Australia and other Mediterranean climates around the world,” said graduate student Alice Levine, who focuses on restoration ecology and has been working with the project since its inception.

A firefighter uses a torch to spread flames during the controlled burn.
A firefighter uses a torch to spread flames during the controlled burn. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Ripgut grass has a short history in California, relatively speaking. It came over in the late 1700s with the Spanish explorers and wasn’t planted intentionally, but most likely came to California mixed in with animal feed.

“If we were weeding this, it would take all summer,” she said. “With fire, you can control large areas at a time.”

The goal is to restore all of Lagoon Island and use it as a model for people to get techniques that work.

The project got its funding from a coastal fund, which comes from UCSB students and helped pay for the interns who helped with the project, as well as equipments and plants.

In addition to the scheduled burns, the group also has been working on eradicating Ice Plant on the island. Members found that covering the plant with black plastic was an effective way to kill it, and replaced a number of ice plants with about 2,000 native plants.

As for the next stage of the burn, Lisa Stratton, the CCBER’s director of ecosystem management, said they’ll spread seeds and plant in the area in mid-October or early November, before the first rains come.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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