QLG Web Page Editor's Note: Links to relevant Quincy Library Group documents are provide for further information and clarification.

Link: Fuelbreaks Avoid the Real Problem Of Reducing Fuels

The Alternatives Are Brush Cutting, Limited Thinning, And Controlled Fires

by Robert Brothers (6/97)

"Fuelbreaks are strategically placed strips of low volume fuel where firefighters can make a stand against fire, and provide safe access for fire crews in the vicinity of wildfires, often for the purpose of lighting backfires. Experts agree that, if not maintained, fuelbreaks are ineffective, and, if not defended by firefighters, they will not be effective against fast moving fires." -- Greenlee & Sapsis, Prefire Effectiveness, 1996

This quote from an expert source sums it up: fuelbreaks won't work against the worst fires, and may not work against less threatening or beneficial fires unless cleared and defended.

Fuelbreaks have been proposed and cut in many places (especially California). However, fire historian Stephen Pyne points out that there has never been a follow-through of funding to maintain these cleared areas free of flammable grass and brush.

Yet the idea of fuelbreaks is still so attractive as a means of controlling dreaded wildfires that hundreds of miles of quarter-mile wide fuelbreaks with less than 40% tree cover have recently been proposed by the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project, and may be forced upon three National Forests in northern California by legislation favored by the Quincy Library Group and Rep. Wally Herger (R-CA) (see page 30). Fuelbreaks up to 600 feet wide have also been proposed as part of the Hazred Timber Sale in the Ashland Watershed (See the description of the Citizen's Alternative to this Forest Service proposal on pp. 20-21.)

The rationale is a simple strategy of triage, or sacrifice. "Paradoxically, owl habitat may have to be reduced in order to save it," according to University of Washington Professor James Agee (1993, p. 401).

This method of saving habitat is to intentionally fragment it further into "compartments" laid out on the landscape in a manner to make control of fires easier. (As if the landscape is not already "compartmentalized" by existing roads.)

What is sacrificed by fuelbreaks is not just the forest itself, but the functions that it serves for wildlife. The ridgetop locations of fuelbreaks are used by many species as travel corridors. Removing protective cover here will block movements by small mammals such as fishers, martens, and voles, and disrupt other species in unknown ways. Ridgetop snags are important nesting places for insect-eating bats.

Fuelbreaks along roads make more sense than along ridgetops, since roads are already barriers to wildlife, as well as major places for fire ignitions by people. Headwaters generally supports fuels reduction and firefighting that is focused on such "interface" areas between people and forests. But fuelbreaks in the middle of wildlands make little sense, such as those proposed for Winburn Ridge in the middle of the Ashland Watershed.

Reducing Fuels Deals Directly With The Problem

Effective firefighting has increased the amount of unburnt fuels in the forests, thus adding to the potential for hotter fires. These fuels can be reduced by cutting them and using them as chips and poles, or by burning, or by a combination of the two.

In many places, it's most cost-effective to re-introduce fire in a controlled way, at the right time of year.

But in other places, where there are a lot of fuels to burn and the soils are thin, we need a different strategy. In order to reduce fire intensity in these more fragile areas, controlled burning must be preceded by brush cutting and thinning-from-below of small diameter trees. And in especially sensitive places, such as the Ashland Watershed's highly-erosive granitic soils, only very limited burning of small piles of brush ("jackpot burning") should be considered after thinning. (See the article on pp. 22-23).

New Funding Available for Fuels Reduction

The Clinton Administration is proposing that a new "Hazard Fuels Reduction Account" be established to deal with these problems directly. As it is now, agencies can only get money for brush cutting and controlled burning from the money received from commercial timber sales. This is the origin of the "cut the forests to save them" way of thinking.

$40 million is proposed for this fund in the President's fiscal year 1998 Budget Request. Headwaters strongly urges folks to write their Congresspeople and urge support for this budget item.

Rather than put our hopes and our money into questionable stop-gap measures like fuelbreaks, let's invest in a long-term solution that will work.

Recommended reading: "The Use of Fire in Restoration," USFS, INT-GTR-341, Intermountain Research Station, 6/96, 86pp.