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Questioning the Effectiveness of Fuel Breaks for Preventing Wildfire

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In winter 2017, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) began reviewing the environmental consequences of creating a region-wide series of fuel breaks to control wildfire in sagebrush land. Fuel breaks are strips of land that has been altered to slow or control the spread of fire.  The fuel breaks under consideration by the BLM would create thousands of new, linear, non-sagebrush habitat across the Great Basin portions of Utah, Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada. As George Wuerthner reported for Earth Island Journal in February 2019, fuel breaks not only harm natural ecosystems, they also divert attention from the underlying causes of wildfire, including global warming and livestock grazing.

For political reasons, Wuerthner reported, “the BLM is stuck dealing with the symptoms of livestock grazing and climate change, rather than doing anything about these factors.” Livestock grazing facilitates expansion of exotic grasses, such as cheatgrass, which are highly flammable; and, Wuerthner wrote, there is “abundant evidence” that large wildfires are “a direct consequence” of the warm, dry conditions associated with global warming.

As human-made alterations, fuel breaks are not natural.  Because they alter predator-prey relationships, fuel breaks have negative effects on ecosystems. For example, ground nesting birds suffer egg predation from mice, which is made worse by the linear pathways created by fuel breaks. Furthermore, shrubbery removal programs reduce natural habitat that species including sage grouse and pygmy rabbits depend on to survive.

At the same time, at the same time, many question the effectiveness of fuel breaks in stopping wildfires. As Wuerthner noted, the “extreme fire weather conditions” are characterized by high winds. Unfortunately, high winds significantly reduce the effectiveness of fuel breaks.

Source: George Wuerthner, “Creating Fuel Breaks Won’t Stop Wildfires In Sagebrush Land,” Earth Island Journal, February 25, 2019, http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/articles/entry/creating-fuel-breaks-wont-stop-wildfires-in-sagebrush-land.

Student Researcher: Kevin Chan (City College San Francisco)

Faculty Evaluator: Jennifer Levinson (City College of San Francisco)

Daniel Christof

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