Just to the south of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge along the Rio Grande in southwestern New Mexico, a large fire was billowing out a thick plume of smoke when the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite passed overhead on May 4, 2006. The actively burning area that MODIS detected is outlined in red. According to a local news report, the fire is burning in salt cedar along the banks of the river, and fire fighters were conducting “burn out” operations (carefully burning vegetation in the fire’s path to starve it of fuel) to prevent the spread of the fire northward into the refuge.
Salt cedar, also known as tamarisk, is the common name for several species of non-native, small trees or shrubs that have invaded river and streambank ecosystems in many places in the United States. Nowhere is their impact more severe than in the Southwest, where their persistent ability to survive drought, flood, and fire allows them to rapidly colonize riparian (river- and stream-bank) habitat and prevent native plants from germinating. The loss of native plants has a cascading effect on the rest of the ecosystem. Salt cedar was introduced to the United States from Asia as an ornamental plant in the early 1800s, and its spread has radically transformed riparian ecosystems throughout the Southwest.
NASA image courtesy the MODIS Rapid Response Team, Goddard Space Flight Center