There’s No Science Behind Fuel Breaks? Story in Bloomberg Press

From this presentation
by Mike Fettic
It appears from this Bloomberg story that BLM would like to implement fuel breaks along roads in Nevada and Utah, and is using large-scale NEPA. The poor BLM- they try to be efficient NEPA-wise and all they get is grief. But what was most curious to me was the way the scientific side was covered in the article. Apologies for the length of this post but I thought the quotes from the different scientists were interesting.

The USGS report calls new fuel breaks “a grand experiment” and says that there is very little scientific evidence—only anecdotal evidence—that they work.

It took me about two seconds to find this one.
Perhaps the report authors looked at it and decided observations of practitioners don’t count, even if summarized in a report. It’s pretty compelling to me, though. In fact, I would believe interviews with fire people more than calculations on data sets published in a journal. Here’s what the fire folks quoted say:

“The main theme fire managers expressed regarding fuel breaks is that they are not show stoppers. “You still have to show up to the fire,” said Lance Okeson, Boise District BLM Fuels AFMO. Fuel breaks are designed to work in conjunction with fire resources (e.g., engines, water tankers, etc.) to stop fires. In most situations fuel breaks alone will only reduce the rate of spread and intensity of a wildfire. It won’t put it
out, but it can greatly increase the chances of containing a fire and can dramatically reduce the size and severity of wildfires. Managers agreed that fuel breaks will not slow down head fires under extreme conditions, but will dramatically reduce the spread rate of a flaming front under normal conditions.

Back to the USGS report:

Firefighters recognize that fuel breaks are likely to do little to reduce a fire’s intensity, flame length or rate of spread under the extreme fire weather conditions that have caused wildfires to explode and quickly spread through the Great Basin in recent years, the report says.

“That is a limitation of fuel breaks—under severe fire weather conditions they’re not going to be effective because the intensity of those fires is such that they can jump right across fuel breaks and roads,” Douglas J. Shinneman, a USGS supervisory research fire ecologist in Idaho and lead author of the report, said in an interview.

It seems like that quote is a bit misleading in that it doesn’t mention the utility of fuelbreaks in helping with suppression. Which is exactly the main point, as the fire folks say in their report. Then we get to the old “it won’t work all the time, so we shouldn’t do it” argument.

The breaks could slow wildfire spread and are a logical idea given the increased wildfire threat, but they’d have to be regularly maintained, said J. Derek Scasta, an assistant professor and extension rangeland specialist in the Ecosystem Science and Management department at the University of Wyoming.

“It’s easy to create an overly ambitious plan that the human resources aren’t there to do it the way it should be done or the way we want them to be done,” he said. “There are big questions with fuel breaks, too. At this landscape-scale, how do we establish fuel breaks that are long enough, wide enough, enough in number to actually affect fires?”

If fuel breaks are ever proved effective against wildfire, they come with a tradeoff: Damaged habitat for species such as the greater sage grouse, Shinneman of the USGS said. The chicken-sized bird is an indicator species for the health of the sagebrush lands, which support hundreds of species of wildlife, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

In building fuel breaks, “ideally we will reduce wildfire, or at least the risk of wildfire, but at the same time, there’s going to be potentially negative impacts from additional disturbance of the fuel breaks themselves, and it can be argued that that’s the lesser of the two evils,” Shinneman said.

The BLM considers the area where the fuel breaks may be built already disturbed because they’ll parallel existing roads or other rights of way, said Ken Frederick, a spokesman for the BLM’s National Interagency Fire Center.

This includes the “they won’t work if we can’t afford to keep them up” argument (but it also raises the question of whether they can afford to do them in the first place). Also the “they work but not at the landscape scale” this is confusing, I’d have asked Scasta more about that.

‘Conveyor Belt’ For Fire
The fuel breaks promote the spread of invasive grasses and other non-native species, which can take over large swaths of land and increase the risk that wildfires will spread, not slow down when hit the fuel breaks, said Meg Krawchuk, a scientist who studies landscape fire and conservation science at Oregon State University.

“They carry fire very fast, very quickly,” Krawchuk said, referring to fuel breaks covered with invasive plant species. “You end up with a conveyor belt for fire in these grasses.”

Fuel breaks also fragment wildlife habitat and damage ecosystems—especially from the use of chemicals and earth-moving machines the BLM expects to use to clear the fuel breaks, said Erica Newman, a researcher studying the ecological effects of wildfire and other landscape disturbances at the University of Arizona.

“One of the big rules of ecology that we know is that species do not survive in fragmented habitat,” Newman said. “They’re talking about an ineffective tool to fight fire, and it’s going to fragment habitat. They’re going to raise fire risk and further endanger biodiversity. Their reason for doing this is not sound.”

“I have never heard any scientific basis for fuel breaks,” Newman said. “They’re obscuring science rather than employing it to do their research. This looks like a giveaway to the chemical and machinery corporations.”

My bold. That’s a pretty strong statement as quoted.. not for any fuel breaks anywhere ever? And those fire folks who authored the piece above have ulterior motives? Note the presentation by Fettic linked under the photo, he seems to be aware of sage grouse and their habitat.

19 thoughts on “There’s No Science Behind Fuel Breaks? Story in Bloomberg Press”

  1. Agency study questions fuel break effectiveness, wildlife impacts

    For Immediate Release: July 27, 2018

    BOISE, Ida. – A new federal study released this year calls into question whether fuel breaks are effective in stopping or slowing down fires on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands across the West. The study, undertaken by the U.S. Geological Survey at the request of the Bureau of Land Management, concludes that fuel breaks have negative impacts on wildlife like sage grouse by fragmenting habitat, and that there is a lack of quality data to determine the degree to which fuel breaks are effective at slowing the spread of range fires.

    Federal agencies gather mandatory reports after fires to monitor the effectiveness of fuel breaks. But required responses are too often limited to “yes or no” answers addressing whether fuel breaks were helpful, and lack quantifiable data such as the length of fuel breaks that held, and the length of fuel breaks that were breached, and whether fires were fully contained or escaped containment in the presence of fuel breaks.

    “There is currently a major push by federal agencies to construct fuel breaks across our western public lands, but this study highlights the lack of scientifically credible evidence that they actually work, particularly under extreme fire conditions,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project.

    On the question of impacts to wildlife, the study was far more conclusive, recognizing the well-established impacts of habitat fragmentation on many species of wildlife, from pygmy rabbits to sagebrush songbirds to sage grouse. In addition, non-native plants like forage kochia and crested wheatgrass used in “greenstrips” degrade wildlife habitat values and can spread beyond fuel breaks into surrounding undisturbed habitats.

    “Fire on cheatgrass-degraded rangelands has major ecological impacts on habitat values for sage grouse and other wildlife, but if fuel breaks are implemented on a massive scale, the habitat fragmentation impacts on wildlife populations could pose an equally serious threat,” said Molvar.

    The study examines three types of fuel breaks: “greenstrips” where non-native plants are seeded in hopes of having higher-moisture plants that can slow the advance of fire, “brown strips” where bulldozers scrape away the vegetation and topsoil down to bare mineral soil, and mowed strips, which take out sagebrush and other tall vegetation. The study found that all three types of fuel breaks are prone to invasion by highly flammable weeds like cheatgrass, thus becoming ineffective at slowing the spread of fire, when they are not regularly maintained.

    “Fuel breaks are not a panacea that are going to halt big range fires by themselves,” said Molvar. “Fuel breaks are only truly effective when they are actively defended by firefighters, and they work best in cooler, wetter weather when fire has a lesser tendency to expand into a major conflagration. During extreme fire weather, when the really big, vast fires occur, fed by hot temperatures and strong winds, even major rivers and interstate highways fail to halt major fires.”

    The study dismissed “targeted grazing” as a means to create fuel breaks on a large scale, stating that “[b]ecause of its rather limited and novel usage, the effects of targeted grazing are not explored further in this report.”

    The study points out that agencies have been implementing fuel breaks on a significant scale since the early 1990s, totaling more than 330,000 acres of habitat disturbance, according to the report.

    “We fully support the suppression of fires in sage grouse habitats, but creating a vast and sprawling network of fuel breaks isn’t worth the habitat impacts if the firefighter resources don’t exist to defend them,” Molvar concluded. “The BLM should use this new information to chart a more cautious approach on fuel breaks, and re-focus its efforts on addressing the root cause of the fire problem, which is the heavy livestock grazing that converts native grasses to highly flammable cheatgrass.

    • Matthew, here’s a quote: ” However, despite the potential for fuel breaks to help slow the loss of
      sagebrush caused by fire, relatively little scientific information is available to assess either their
      effectiveness (that is, to control wildfire) or their ecological effects (that is, on plant and wildlife
      communities), especially in arid and semi-arid landscapes. In the only other review of fuel breaks for sagebrush ecosystems that has been compiled, the authors state, “Fuel break effectiveness continues to be a subject of much debate yet relatively little research has been conducted evaluating their role in constraining wildfire size and frequency” (Maestas, Pellant, and others, 2016, p. 4). Similarly, there is insufficient research regarding the effects of fuel breaks on rangeland ecosystems in general and the effects on wildlife populations specifically. ”

      I would argue that there is plenty of research on fuel break effectiveness, but I agree, less on sagebrush ecosystems. So you would have to argue that info on non-sagebrush is not relevant. Well I don’t think it’s not relevant at all but it’s not 100% relevant.

      This reminds me of fire retardant- where there is a serious gap between practitioners (fire suppression folks) and “no research supports” it.

      Now, there is a definite motivation for researchers to downplay practitioner observations, but the reason for lack of research is probably because it’s impossible to do replicated experiments with anything as stochastic as fire, so basically you would model it. Then I suppose you could compare your models to observed variables on the ground post-fire, if in fact you have enough data. Which means without that it would all be about the models and the assumptions- which seems to me to be why there are disagreements about other fuel treatment vs species questions. Most notably, spotted owl.

      And to Molvar, no one every said that fuelbreaks “halt range fires by themselves.” Straw person argument.

  2. I wanted to respond to your comment on my quote: “That’s a pretty strong statement as quoted.. not for any fuel breaks anywhere ever? And those fire folks who authored the piece above have ulterior motives?”

    I talked about this on Twitter, but the quote was a partial quote from me, and provided without its original context. As you may know, people who are quoted in articles do not get a chance to edit the journalist’s work, otherwise I would have changed the statement to be closer to my original.

    Originally I said I have never heard of a scientific basis for fuel breaks. Fuel breaks are put in for pragmatic reasons, to protect specific assets, like homes or buildings. They are there to provide access points for firefighting, and to slow fire spread (not stop it). Fuel breaks are not generally placed for ecological reasons. In my reading of the BLM plan, I see no specific assets that are being protected.

    I stand behind my original statements that the BLM plan is scientifically unsound. The plans were not developed with academic ecologists, or indeed, the US government’s own science branch, the USGS. The plan appears to have been developed independently of well-established science. I agree with Matthew Koehler’s thought in the above post and encourage you to read about how shaky the BLM plan really is.

    To your comment: “And those fire folks who authored the piece above have ulterior motives?” I would point out that it is not required that the individual people writing the plan have any ulterior motives. All that is required is that the BLM higher ups decide that they want to give a contract to a company that makes bulldozers and mowers. This is fairly common in land management. Contracts are given to machinery corporations, pesticide corporations, and timber companies on a regular basis to generate revenue.

    Finally, I did not look at the presentation, but I have spent a decade studying fire management impacts on birds. I am familiar with the studies of both impacts of human activity and wildfire to birds in this system. A network of unnecessary fire breaks will not protect the Greater Sage Grouse, but will further endanger the species, as well as a number of other species in that ecosystem.

    • Thanks, Erica, I understand how a person can be quoted out of context. I think you raise some interesting points.

      1) Sagebrush fuel breaks are only a part of a vast literature on fuel breaks in other kinds of vegetation, most notably trees. For whatever reason, beaucoup bucks have gone into studying forest fires and forest fuel treatments. Scientists still don’t agree, despite millions spent. And no they are not only for buildings and communities. They can also be designed (and are) to protect watershed values and species habitat. Also you can’t have it both ways, either there is no science, or there is “well-established” science saying that fuel treatments don’t work and the cons outweigh the pros (which you don’t have to be a sociologist of science to say “hey that’s not science, that’s a judgment call of the pros and cons!).

      2) If an EIS is not developed with academic ecologists that doesn’t necessarily make it “unsound”. It is standard practice for folks to develop them with input by scientists as well as others, and there is a broad array of methods to do that. But at the end of the day, what we find most of the time, is that if it’s any mildly controversial topic, scientists of various disciplines and within discipline disagree. So I’ve been on many EIS teams where it was helpful to elucidate scientific input, but all it did was highlight existing disagreements agency specialists already know about.

      3) “All that is required is that the BLM higher ups decide that they want to give a contract to a company that makes bulldozers and mowers. This is fairly common in land management. Contracts are given to machinery corporations, pesticide corporations, and timber companies on a regular basis to generate revenue.” I really question several things about this comment. First companies that make bulldozers and mowers are not involved (Caterpillar? John Deere?). Contracts are likely to go to the same kinds of companies that work on other government projects. And if herbicides are sprayed it’s probably a drop in the bucket for Monsanto (or whomever) but does make work for Jane’s Spraying Company of Elko. This is the most concerning to me of all your claims. Perhaps I didn’t understand you correctly?

  3. Those firebreaks are money wasting, worthless and will do nothing but encourage invasive non-native weed growth which some time in the future will further facilitate fire speed and growth. Today’s heavy wind driven fires will never be detered by a firebreak. Up in the San Jacinto Mountains in an area known as Rouse Ridge where there were no homes or other human activity anywhere near it, the Forestry spent several years and 10s of 1000s of dollars in the 1980s blazing a wide path all along the ridge for miles which was a total waste. The area never burned, because human presence was rare and if it did burn, it was caused by a lightning strike during the summer monsoon season and even then it only smoldered with white smoke because it usually also downpoured with heavy rain.

    Now firebreaks near homes and other human infrastructure make sense. But generally all their prescribed burns not only on Rouse Ridge, but also inaccessable wildland areas on the ridgetops on north side of Garner Valley and overlooking Palm Springs never did anything but destroy pocket forests or woodlands and old growth chaparral which never needed thinning or management in the first place. In any even when large fires like the 2013 Mountain Fire and last year’s Cranston Fire blew through the area, no amount of firebreak did anything. What saved things and helped put them out was wind shift and weather change.

    Article quote: – “I have never heard any scientific basis for fuel breaks,” Newman said. “They’re obscuring science rather than employing it to do their research.”

    Both side of these debates for and against like to use the word “Science.” It’s almost as if it’s some kind of magical charm to use to win an argument. Both side claiming they have the settled science. You don’t need science for this, you just need “Common Sense” which is often lacking in a lot of science these days. You really don’t need a genius to explain what a child would get.

    • Firebreaks/fuelbreaks are useful in many situations, but firebreaks alone aren’t always an answer to managing fire. A shaded fuel break can help slow a moderately intense fire and even crown fires, but high-intensity fire in an overcrowded stand can send embers over and beyond fuel breaks and, with high winds, fire can simply burn through them. Ask wildland fire managers about them and many will tell you that fire breaks are crucial offense/defense lines: places to safely start back fires and build or improve “down to bare mineral soil” fire lines. Roads, rivers, and other places with low or no fuels also serve as firebreaks/fuelbreaks. In other words: fuelbreaks can be valuable, depending on the time, place, fuel conditions in and around it, weather, etc. Strategically placed fuelbreaks far from a WUI community are one way of preparing for the inevitable fire.

    • That’s interesting, Kevin.. for California shrublands, I found this interesting paper from 1977 that says “More frequently, fuelbreaks are not involved in control efforts until a fuel becomes larger. Then their usefulness depends on their locations, on how they are used, and on wind and fuel conditions. ”

      And this paper suggests they can be effective as well, just as you said:
      “Fire weather and fuel break maintenance were also consistently important. Models and maps predicting where fuel breaks and fires are most likely to intersect performed well in the regions
      where the models were developed, but these models did not extend well to other regions, reflecting how the environmental controls of fire regimes vary even within a single ecoregion. Nevertheless, similar mapping methods could be adopted in different landscapes to help with strategic location of fuel breaks. Strategic location of fuel breaks should also account for access points near communities, where fire protection is most important. ”

      Note that one of the authors, Keeley, is also USGS and the study was funded by the USGS.

      My summary: they work sometimes, but not all the time. It depends on where you are and those fire conditions. Impacts depend on whether they work or not, which we can’t model. The people on the ground point to successes. But a) we don’t think they really know, b) they’re not collecting the right data or c) our judgment of the potential pros and cons is different.

      • “Strategic location of fuel breaks should also account for access points near communities, where fire protection is most important.”

        And frankly, near communities is really the only areas where they should be present. Looking at the photo in your post, they appear to have used catlines and burns combined out in the middle of nowhere prairie steppe. From what I’ve watched over the past few years lately, these high winds spot fires miles ahead. What those catlines do is destroy the mycorrhizal grid underneath the soil and favour non-native invasives. There were actually a few articles earlier this year which dealt with the destruction that Catlines create, not only in prevent and control fuelbreaks, but also the actual fire fighting.

  4. Americans, at both extremes, still need more education about forest management and fire science. Right-wingers are saying that clearcuts prevent wildfires. Lefties say that fires are good. Of course, nothing stops a firestorm. Maintenance also needs to be addressed with fuelbreaks.

    More thinning would increase the effectiveness of fuelbreaks in our forests, as well.

  5. “Of course, nothing stops a firestorm” — Actually a terrific, time-tested fire stopper is WEATHER; makes fires dramatically worse, then stops them cold. I know you probably meant nothing humans can do. But seldom do I see a Fire Boss being honest about this during a media briefing as they spend $millions daily to create the illusion that what they are doing is (hopefully) working. More honesty would actually help lay people sober up about the stark reality of living responsibly in fire zones i.e. applying “fire wise” techniques to their home and lot, or making smarter building/buying choices.

    • Jim, Ted Nordhaus has an interesting article about why he and his wife stay in fire country..
      “The situation seems bound to get worse. The degree to which the recent spate of intense wildfires can be attributed to global warming is disputed—and in some sense irresolvable. Disentangling decades of fire suppression and unplanned growth from the effects of a hotter and drier climate is well-nigh impossible. But what seems clear is that both these drivers of worsening wildfires are likely to continue. Global temperatures continue to rise. And Californians show no more sign of abandoning our suburban and exurban redoubts for fear of wildfires than we have shown willingness to abandon our fault-riddled cities for fear of earthquakes.

      The same is true for the two of us. My wife has declared that if we get burned out, she doesn’t think she’ll want to return. But neither of us feels much urgency to leave preemptively. And we have greater resources and flexibility than most. For those struggling economically—tied to 9-to-5 jobs, dependent on caretakers, or caretakers themselves—the choices are harder still.

      Oddly, the thing that we both acknowledge might prompt us to take action now is not the dreaded fear of fire apocalypse but more prosaic concerns about quality of life. For the third time in little more than a year, we spent a week or more sheltering indoors from the Beijing levels of air pollution that had drifted into the Bay Area from fires to our north. The prospect that fires of this sort might produce frequent air-quality crises almost year-round, more than the fear of losing our home or our lives to raging wildfire in the Berkeley hills, is what has given us pause.”

      Here’s the link.

      • Unfortunately, no amount of ‘climate change’ action will save our forests from drought, bark beetles and firestorms, in the next 20-50 years. For many of those forests, their destruction is/has occurred/occurring. The options we once had, in many forests, are gone. There will be more suffering, and even deaths, from wildfire smoke. That is how my uncle passed. It sure seems to me that the tragedy of Paradise will fall by the wayside, until another town burns to the ground. We’ve also seen the blame being so generously applied to non-issues and ‘agenda-based blame’ is rampant.

    • Here in California, weather does not stop wildfires. It’s even rare when our wildfires get knocked down by ‘poor burning conditions’, except in late fall. We saw the Rim and King Fires run into higher elevation rock, running out of consistent fuels. We saw the Rim Fire burn into Yosemite, with more intensity and more damage in those supposedly pristine forests. (Yes, fire suppression has affected those, too!)

      Additionally, when lightning storms do their thing, we don’t see much precipitation with them.

  6. I wanted to thank Sharon for posting this and for the follow-up comments. This post is a great example of the disconnect we see all too often between scientists, the public, and resource managers.

    The disagreement often starts with a simple misunderstanding of words. For example, looking through the presentation Sharon linked, the fire manager defines several types of “fuel break”, which include simple mowing of rights of way, all the way up to disking and bulldozing, but also include planting low-growing native vegetation to outcompete cheatgrass, (and new techniques to reduce soil disturbance). I wonder how much of the disagreement about “fuel breaks” comes down to different people imagining different types of fuel breaks?

    The next step is that everyone thinks of an example from their own experience. So even if we are talking about the same type of fuel break, we think of different situations. If you’ve seen a fuel break work then you might think they are great, but if you’ve seen one that never had a fire (or had a fire burn over it), you might think they are useless. This is where science is supposed to come in, with some sort of sample large enough and random enough to provide unbiased statistical rigor.

    But scientists are also biased, both in their experience and in their interests/focus/values. And I think we have a hard time weighing the insights of managers who have on the ground experience with scientists who have statistical evidence, because there is no way to take into account the differing values. So: we just end up arguing past one another, about different management actions, in different situations, and with different definitions of success.

    • Conor, I agree with your comment above. How can we not talk past each other? Be in the same room, at the same time, talking about the same thing (or maybe the same virtual forum). Does anyone have any experiences with that kind of thing?

      If everyone can agree that ” fuel breaks work sometimes and not other times” (are photos “anecdotes”?), and “if they work, sage grouse habitat isn’t burned up “, then what exactly needs to be studied through research? How to make them work better perhaps, not whether “if they don’t work all the time they are worth doing.” Because worth is related to values, and that can be addressed politically and/or with the social sciences.

      Here’s an abstract of how co-design and co-production worked in a healthcare research project in Japan.

      Abstract: Co-design and co-production with non-academic stakeholders has been recognized as a key approach in transdisciplinary sustainability research. The majority of transdisciplinary studies have been conducted in Europe and North America, with a marked lack of such research in the Asian context—particularly with regard to healthcare. Utilizing a case study involving mobile health check-ups performed using a portable health clinic system in Jaipur, India, from March 2016 to March 2018, this study identifies key factors in co-design and co-production that should be considered to ensure the project’s sustainability. Thoroughly reviewing all of the documents and materials related to the case study’s co-design and co-production, this study identifies the following key factors:

      (1) mutual stakeholder agreement on a long-term research plan, protocol, and budget; (2) harmonizing research objectives, frames, and the scale of stakeholder expectations; (3) stakeholders’ commitment and a sense of ownership derived from their needs and priorities; (4) stakeholder trust; (5) effective coordinators; (6) personality type and characteristics of stakeholder leaders; (7) capacity building and the empowerment of local research staff and participants; and (8) continuous efforts to involve stakeholders throughout the co-design and co-production processes. Facilitating effective co-design and co-production, these factors will help ensure the future sustainability of projects.

      I just picked this one randomly… would appreciate any examples from something closer to forests.

  7. OK — I get staying in place, very understandable and practical. BUT be FIRE WISE!! Take care of business on your lot and house, and maybe, just maybe, your home will survive. But once the dominoes start to fall, each house igniting the too-close house next door, even that won’t help.

  8. Without maintenance, fuelbreaks are worthless or worse than worthless. BLM (and FS) have a terrible record of fuelbreak maintenance. These proposed are highly likely to support cheatgrass, thus providing a continuous fuel source for fires. Follow the money. Folks get rich off wildfires.

    • Kathleen, the folks at BLM are very aware of cheatgrass and have written about what they plan to do in their DEIS. I don’t understand your statement “folks get rich”.. firefighters? Many folks in the FS, and likely the BLM, would prefer less money would go to fire and more to other programs. Whom exactly are you talking about?


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