Crews work to eradicate invasive, flammable Arundo canes from the Russian River banks in Healdsburg

Arundo donax has become a troubling problem around the nation, outcompeting native flora and sucking up far more water than other plant species would require.|

Healdsburg Fire Marshal Lance Macdonald recalls tending to a fire six years ago that burned so fiercely it melted the soles of his boots.

The blaze started near the Healdsburg Memorial Bridge in a patch of Arundo donax canes aside the Russian River. It was contained without extraordinary effort, with support from Cal Fire — and absent the winds that would rise around the region three weeks later and fan the destructive North Bay firestorm of October 2017.

But the “giant reed,” as it’s also called, threw off so much heat on its own that it wrecked wildland firefighting boots meant to last, Macdonald said.

“When those reeds are on fire, they burn really hot and really fast,” he said.

As fire marshal and division chief for Healdsburg Fire, Macdonald is all too aware of the threat presented by stands of towering Arundo that have spread along the banks of the Russian River, especially near lower elevation Fitch Mountain communities with sizable populations of senior citizens.

Invasive, 30-foot reeds that grow extremely fast in large, dense colonies along waterways, Arundo has become a troubling problem around the nation, outcompeting native flora and sucking up far more water than other plant species would require.

It’s also a major fire hazard.

Posing an alarming risk

After reports that similar, invasive grasses contributed to the deadly Maui wildfires that last week killed at least 111 people, destroyed thousands of structures and scorched large areas of the once lush Hawaiian island, the risk Arundo poses as a ready fuel is all the more alarming.

The plant’s thick, hollow, fibrous canes die and dry out but still stand tall as new shoots rise among them, making for ideal wildfire kindling.

“Ironically, it’s kind of the perfect fuel,” Macdonald said. “It’s dry. It’s upright. It’s hollow. It’s close together.

“It’s all the things you wouldn’t want to have if you’re trying to stop a fire.”

After several decades of steady growth along both sides of the Russian River in Healdsburg, it’s also increased the chance for ignition and wildfire spread in the right conditions.

“The Russian River used to be a defensible space,” Macdonald said. “It used to be a big firebreak, and with the Arundo taking over, it’s kind of lost that ability.”

An Arundo removal campaign along the river in Healdsburg is underway to address some of the problem and is focused on a winding, 5.2 mile stretch up river of Dry Creek to the S curves near Rio Lindo Adventist Academy.

It’s the latest in a series of efforts up and down the Russian River and in nearby watersheds undertaken by the Sonoma Resource Conservation District, the Mendocino Resource Conservation District and several Native tribes in the area, mostly over the past two decades.

Native to Europe’s Iberian Peninsula, south Asia and North Africa, the plant was introduced into North America in the early 1500s and has spread around the southern half of the United States.

Often planted along waterways to prevent erosion, it has become invasive along rivers, creeks and canals, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A thirsty plant that absorbs far more than other plants from the soil and nearby waterways, it still dries out by virtue of an evapotranspiration rate roughly three times greater than most riparian vegetation.

The Sonoma Resource Conservation District tackled about 1,200 acres in Alexander Valley, beginning around 2013, with the help of state Department of Water Resources funding and the permission of many private property owners.

Recent work

The more recent Arundo removal work was begun in Healdsburg last year by the nonprofit Russian Riverkeeper, under the umbrella of the city fire department and its fuels management program.

The project got a boost this year with a nearly $1 million grant from the State Coastal Conservancy, awarded in June to cover 70% of the cost. Riverkeeper is raising funds to meet its obligation to finance the remaining 30%.

It is among the community’s key fire prevention priorities, which include forest thinning on Fitch Mountain, in the Healdsburg Ridge Open Space Preserve and around hills to the northeast, Macdonald said.

Those hills are where dry, offshore winds would sweep during high fire conditions like those that threatened the city during the October 2019 Kincade Fire, which forced the city’s evacuation. Those winds are also what makes Arundo extraction along the river so critical, he said.

“The fire that makes me nervous is the fire that’s going to blow into town from that direction,” Macdonald said.

Riverkeeper staff and volunteer labor from the Healdsburg Rotary Noon and Sunrise clubs, the Healdsburg High School Interact Club, the Fitch Mountain Association and others started the newest Arundo removal project last year.

The were joined in October by a cohort of paid crews newly trained in various forms of fire prevention work recruited by newly established Resilience Force California with help from North Bay Jobs with Justice.

An outgrowth of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, Resilience Force is focused on training and providing workers for climate adaptation projects with a focus on just wages and conditions, often employing immigrant laborers at risk of exploitation.

Used in Indigenous traditions

Most of those at work on Arundo removal are Indigenous people from Oaxaca, Mexico, where Arundo, or Carrizo, is harvested for utilitarian uses, including basket weaving and floor mats.

The thick, hollow canes, generally 1 1/2-to-2 inches thick, also are used to build infant beds, rugs, gates and other structures around the home.

In this case, workers familiar with the its growth habits are turning their expertise to eradication. Several said through an interpreter that the work made them feel like they were back in their homeland and otherwise contributing to beneficial stewardship of the land.

“I like doing this because I’m also learning and taking care of Mother Earth,” Lucía López said, “and so that there won’t be more fires.”

“It’s a real benefit for the future,” said Gervacio Peña said.

Working earlier this week on property owned by Syar Industries near Badger Park, 10 workers joined by a handful of Riverkeeper staff tackled large colonies of Arundo between the river banks and a gravel road used by locals to access unnamed beaches.

But it’s daunting, arduous work, and not just because several workers were stung by wasps that had nested in two of the many stands along the river.

The giant reed, which can grow as much as four inches a day, resemble corn stalks, though taller, with significant foliage that, when dried, can chafe and cut skin. The canes are heavy and rooted, and usually tangled with other reeds and other branches on uneven ground.

Workers use chain saws to cut free several at once, then have to gut them away from the stand. Other then carry and drag armloads of stalks down long, narrow paths to be staged for chipping.

A small amount of low-toxicity, salt-based herbicide called Imazapyr — mixed off-site — is then painted on the remaining cane to prevent resprouting.

But it’s a Sisyphean task, given how readily the stuff regrows. Even a small piece washed downstream can start a new colony. The Russian Riverkeeper has committed to monitoring its work sites for regrowth for 10 years.

The crew recently shifted upstream to a stretch of river near the River’s Bend 55-plus community and soon will be moving further to an area near new Rio Lindo Academy, below which is a very large and dense colony of Arundo, said Birken Newell, restoration director for the organization.

But there have also areas in the Camp Rose neighborhood where homes very close to the water have had Arundo growing right up to the house — under the rafters and up to the deck, in the case of one elderly woman, he said.

Newell, once a volunteer firefighter in Southern California, said he knows how dangerous that is and recalled responding to a fire in some Arundo on the Santa Ana River where the heat started melting the paint on the fire engine, and the firefighters had to move back.

“It feels good to help these people who don’t have the means and the physical ability to do it, and also help the river,” Newell said.

The organization has identified around 63 properties in the project area that have Arundo on them, Riverkeeper Executive Director Don McEnhill said. The nonprofit so far has permission written authorization to work on 48 of them — most importantly, Syar’s and Rio Lindo’s, which accounts for large masses of giant reed on the upstream and downstream ends of the project area.

“If we can eradicate Arundo from the Russian River from the bridge all around Fitch Mountain,” Macdonald said, “it’s going to put the Russian River back 40 or 50 years, when it used to be a natural firebreak.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the participation of the Healdsburg Rotary Noon Club in Arundo removal efforts.

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