A Bureau of Land Management proposal to install thousands of miles of fuel breaks in the Great Basin has met opposition from environmental advocates but may receive support from fire protection groups.
BLM announced the fuel breaks plans last month. Fuel breaks are strips of land where flammable vegetation has been mowed or replaced with less flammable vegetation. The breaks are meant to deter the spread of wildfires, which have scorched the American West in the last decade, burning 13.5 million acres and costing $373 million in damages in the proposed project area, according to the BLM.
BLM included several alternatives in its proposal — including a no-action alternative. The most ambitious of the options would place 11,000 miles of fuel breaks across a 223-million acre area within Idaho, Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada and Utah. The fuel breaks would be strategically placed along roads and rights-of-way on BLM-administered lands.
“Wildfires devastate forests, rangeland and communities across Idaho and throughout the West, and without strategic planning, they’re likely to continue in the years ahead,” said Casey Hammond, principal deputy assistant secretary for Land and Minerals Management, in a news release. “With this initiative and others like it, we’re working proactively to curb wildfires’ destruction and make it safer and more effective for firefighters to protect people and property.”
Methods of fuel breaks could include brown strips, areas where all vegetation has been removed; green strips, areas where vegetation that is more flammable has been replaced with less flammable vegetation; and mowing or targeted grazing, depending on the locations and vegetation.
Each fuel break would extend 500 feet from the edge of a roadway.
When a wildfire meets a fuel break, the flame lengths decrease and its progress slows, making it safer and easier for firefighters to control, the release said.
But environmental advocates say the fuel breaks could do more harm than good.
The Idaho Conservation League has raised several concerns about the proposed project, including wildlife habitat fragmentation (sagebrush that would be mowed or replaced is home to the Greater Sage Grouse, a threatened bird species), the possible spread of invasive and noxious weeds, the use of pollutant herbicides and potential maintenance breakdowns, which could lead to greater fire danger rather than less.
Randy Fox, a conservation fellow with the Idaho Conservation League, said the group’s main concern is a lack of reliable funding to maintain the fuel breaks.
If the fuel breaks aren’t properly maintained, other flammable species could replace the mowed sagebrush, Fox said. For example, cheatgrass, a highly flammable invasive species, known to grow in disturbed areas, would likely sprout. Areas where cheatgrass gains a foothold tend to become inhospitable to native plants as well.
“We could end up with larger problems than we started off with,” he said.
Fox said his group has supported the installation of fuel breaks in other situations.
“Fuel breaks can be very useful and the (Idaho Conservation League) has been supportive of many projects that include fuel breaks,” he said. “Our primary concerns are that if the fuel breaks are not properly maintained, they could increase rather than decrease the risk of wildfires.”
One benefit of the fuel breaks, which both sides of the debate agree on, is to firefighter safety. The breaks can provide safety anchor points for firefighters.
That’s one of the reasons Dave Radford, a volunteer with the Henry’s Creek Rangeland Fire Protection Association, is in favor of the fuel breaks.
“Putting them along the roads is an excellent idea,” Radford said. “The ground is already disturbed, with the road, and access is one of the main things firefighters need.”
Radford said strategies for preventing wildfires should be proactive. And he’s seen fuel breaks prevent the spread of at least one wildfire.
“We’re a part of mother nature, and we can actually improve things,” he said.
During the Henry’s Creek Fire, the largest wildfire ever in Bonneville County that burned more than 50,000 acres, grazing land in the foothills of the Tetons stopped the fire from spreading even further, Radford said.
“Had it gone over the hill, there could have been a lot of structure and life lost,” he said.
BLM will host several public meetings in the coming weeks on the fuel breaks proposal. There will be a meeting in Idaho Falls from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday at Pinecrest Event Center, 560 E Anderson St.
Public comment also can be submitted online.
To read the full proposal and to comment, visit https://go.usa.gov/xnQcG.