The fungus is among us! Research on “Black Fingers of Death” may lead to wildfire mitigation

On USDA's blog, a recent report on USDA Forest Service plant research caught my eye. “Black Fingers of Death Fungus May Lessen the Intensity of Wildland Fires,” says the headline. Wow! They had me at "Black Fingers of Death!” As humor writer Dave Barry might say, wouldn't that be a great name for a band?

All kidding aside, this is exciting news for areas of the U.S. that are plagued with an invasive species known as cheatgrass. This highly flammable and hard-to-eliminate species was introduced from Europe and presents serious fire risks in the western U.S. The fungus, Pyrenophora semeniperda, is what Forest Service researchers are investigating. So far, they have found it does a number on cheatgrass seeds and prevents them from repopulating in areas where the plants have been removed. The fungus gets its heavy-metal-rock name from the appearance of finger-like, black fruiting bodies that protrude from seeds it has killed.

I'll keep a lookout for more news on this bio-control method and hope to see progress in its application. Look on the Firewise website for more about plants you can use around your home that are fire-resistant and non-invasive. They might not have quite as cool names as our friendly fungus, but they'll help keep your property beautiful and safer from fire.

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Michele Steinberg
Director, Wildfire Division, Disaster safety educator, land use planning advocate. Believes we can end home destruction from wildfires.

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