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.