FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

How Fuel Breaks Actually Fuel Wildfires (and Spread Invasive Weeds)

This past winter, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) began preparing two Environmental Impact Statements to review the environmental consequences of creating a region-wide series of “fuel breaks” that will add thousands of miles of new linear pathways across the Great Basin portion of Nevada, Idaho, Oregon and Utah.

The goal of fuel breaks is to reduce large wildfires in sagebrush habitat.

Unfortunately, the creation of a massive network of linear pathways in the sagebrush steppe likely will not preclude large fires and will have serious impacts on sagebrush ecosystems.

Indeed, the BLM has admitted as much in a recent report where it concluded; “Despite the extensive use of fuel breaks in sagebrush landscapes, especially since the 1990s, the IRFMS-ASP points out that “no specific research within the sagebrush ecosystem has been conducted to evaluate their effectiveness”

The causes of large wildfires have to do with two factors that are off-limits for the BLM to consider.

One is climate change which the Trump administration denies is real. Yet there is abundant evidence that large wildfires are a direct consequence of warm, dry conditions.

The second factor leading to greater wildfire occurrence is expansion of cheatgrass as a result of livestock grazing. Livestock destroy the biocrusts that cover undisturbed soils aiding cheatgrass germination.  Grazing livestock also weakens native bunchgrasses by chomping away at them, weakening their ability to compete against exotics like cheatgrass.

There are three major proposals for fuel breaks. One is to plant a strip of vegetation resistant to wildfire along roads. The most common species are either crested wheatgrass or kochia, both are non-native exotic plants from Asia. Unfortunately, over time, kochia and crested wheatgrass tend to spread into adjacent grasslands, thus directly competing with native bunchgrasses. Neither is particularly good forage for wildlife. Kochia tends to create sterile vegetation types with an understory of thorny bur-buttercup.

The second method is to bulldoze and herbicide a strip of land on either side of a road to kill all vegetation. This disturbance of soils enhances the spread of cheatgrass, so in effect, just creates a more burnable buffer zone. The elimination of native vegetation and the disturbance created by fuel breaks tend to enhance the spread of exotic weeds. One study in California found a 40% increase in exotic annuals along fuel breaks.

The third method discussed is targeted grazing. Targeted grazing is unlikely to be used widely in part because most ranchers are not interested in hauling their livestock out to graze a narrow strip of land and having to deal with keeping their animals confined to the targeted area. Not to mention that another obvious issue is that livestock enhances the spread of flammable cheat grass.

One problem with these “solutions” is that all large wildfires burn under what are termed “extreme fire weather conditions” which are characterized by high winds. With high winds, wildfires regularly jump 16 lane interstates or large rivers like the Columbia, so a narrow fuel break is not going to halt the advance of fires under extreme fire weather conditions.

Many wildlife species are impacted by such linear patterns with significant “edge effect” which result in habitat fragmentation.

For instance, snakes, frogs, amphibians, small mammals, and other wildlife are more vulnerable to predators in these open pathways. Indeed, there is evidence that coyotes, badgers, ravens, and other birds of prey regularly patrol linear fuel breaks and roads for that reason.  And ground-nesting songbirds suffer greater egg predation from mice that are favored by linear travel pathways created by fuel breaks.

Some wildlife, including sage grouse, avoid such linear lines of open terrain. One study documented a “functional” habitat loss for sage grouse up to a mile from the linear vegetation break. Therefore, a massive network of linear shrubbery removal programs can significantly reduce the habitat for these birds.

So, in the end, the sagebrush ecosystem and its associated wildlife will suffer significant ecological impoverishment as a result of fuel break creation, while at the same time, the effectiveness of fuel breaks in stopping wildfires burning under extreme fire weather conditions is acknowledged to be ineffective.

More articles by:

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

December 11, 2018
Eric Draitser
AFRICOM: A Neocolonial Occupation Force?
Sheldon Richman
War Over Ukraine?
Louis Proyect
Why World War II, Not the New Deal, Ended the Great Depression
Howard Lisnoff
Police Violence and Mass Policing in the U.S.
Mark Ashwill
A “Patriotic” Education Study Abroad Program in Viet Nam: God Bless America, Right or Wrong!
Laura Flanders
HUD Official to Move into Public Housing?
Nino Pagliccia
Resistance is Not Terrorism
Matthew Johnson
See No Evil, See No Good: The Truth Is Not Black and White
Maria Paez Victor
How Reuters Slandered Venezuela’s Social Benefits Card
December 10, 2018
Jacques R. Pauwels
Foreign Interventions in Revolutionary Russia
Richard Klin
The Disasters of War
Katie Fite
Rebranding Bundy
Gary Olson
A Few Thoughts on Politics and Personal Identity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit Britain’s Crisis of Self-Confidence Will Only End in Tears and Rising Nationalism
Andrew Moss
Undocumented Citizen
Dean Baker
Trump and China: Going With Patent Holders Against Workers
Lawrence Wittner
Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Movement: a Practical Proposal
Dan Siegel
Thoughts on the 2018 Elections and Beyond
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: I Can Smell the Dumpster Fires Already
Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
Ajamu Baraka
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Time to De-Colonize Human Rights!
Andrew Levine
Thoughts on Strategy for a Left Opposition
Jennifer Matsui
Dead of Night Redux: A Zombie Rises, A Spook Falls
Rob Urie
Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
The Bomb that Did Not Detonate: Julian Assange, Manafort and The Guardian
Robert Hunziker
The Deathly Insect Dilemma
Robert Fisk
Spare Me the American Tears for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Joseph Natoli
Tribal Justice
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Macdonald Stainsby
Unist’ot’en Camp is Under Threat in Northern Canada
Senator Tom Harkin
Questions for Vice-President Bush on Posada Carriles
W. T. Whitney
Two Years and Colombia’s Peace Agreement is in Shreds
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Ramzy Baroud
The Conspiracy Against Refugees
David Rosen
The Swamp Stinks: Trump & Washington’s Rot
Raouf Halaby
Wall-to-Wall Whitewashing
Daniel Falcone
Noam Chomsky Turns 90
Dean Baker
An Inverted Bond Yield Curve: Is a Recession Coming?
Nick Pemberton
The Case For Chuck Mertz (Not Noam Chomsky) as America’s Leading Intellectual
Ralph Nader
New Book about Ethics and Whistleblowing for Engineers Affects Us All!
Dan Kovalik
The Return of the Nicaraguan Contras, and the Rise of the Pro-Contra Left
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Exposing the Crimes of the CIAs Fair-Haired Boy, Paul Kagame, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail