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As Wildfires Get Worse, BLM Plans To Build Fuel Breaks Across The West

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(Daniel Kim/The Sacramento Bee via AP, Pool)

In this July 31, 2019, file photo, members of Emergency Wildfire Forest Management Project work together to construct shaded fuel breaks by hand pruning vegetation to minimize fire risk in the Sierra Foothills in Colfax, Calif. 

In March, the Bureau of Land Management approved a plan to build up to 11,000 miles of fuel breaks across the Great Basin, including much of Nevada. 

Fuel breaks are when vegetation is removed or modified to stop or slow the spread of wildfires. 

The plan approved by the agency also aims to streamline the process for creating fuel breaks by reducing or eliminating some of the environmental assessments of the breaks.

Tim Theisen works in Fire and Aviation for the BLM's Nevada state office. He explained that districts around the West do a lot of work on environmental statements this new program brings that work altogether.

"Each district in this state, and each district in Idaho and Oregon, are all doing the same thing and so there is a lot of redundant work and so this will help streamline, increase our efficiency and so we'll spend less time having to do the analysis and we can focus more on the implementation side," he said.

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Ammon Wilhelm is the project manager for the analysis that will be a guide to individual districts. He works in the BLM's Idaho state office.

Wilhelm and his team looked at thousands of acres of sagebrush around the Great Basin and analyzed the fuel breaks used in the past. That analysis will now be a guide for local offices to make their own decisions.

“We expect local offices to over the next 10 to 15 years to be relying on this analysis for those on-the-ground projects as they plan and execute them at a local level,” he said.

There is no money attached to the plan. Instead, the agency wants individual districts to use the funding they get over the next few years to build the type of fire break that works best for them, Wilhelm said.

While most experts agree that fuel breaks can be useful not everyone agrees with how the BLM has rolled out this current plan.

Liz Munn is the Nevada Sagebrush Ecosystem Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. She admits that fuel breaks are important when battling fires she is concerned about the lack of specifics for where those breaks will go.

"We would like to see more guidance on how we prioritize these management treatments so that we can help folks ensure that we get them in the right place," she said.

Munn said that fuel breaks can cause habitat fragmentation for species like the sage grouse, and if they're not maintained, they can become home to weeds which just add fuel for fires.

But she also noted that fuel breaks can protect important landscapes from devastating fires. She said those tradeoffs are tricky to navigate.

"One of the things we really want to see the BLM do and those local offices do is coming up with a really thoughtful way of evaluating those tradeoffs so that we get these fuel breaks in the right place," she said.

Rupert Steele also wants to see the bureau put more thought into where the fuel breaks go. He's the chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute.

He said Native Americans in the Great Basin still use sagebrush and other plants on the range for food and ceremonies. He said losing those plants, even for a fuel break, can leave a hole in a tribe's circle of life.

"The fire breaks must be really analyzed and I don't know how much scientific work went into this plan," he said, "When I see fires happen, they use bulldozers and when you put in a bulldozed line it destroys the ground forever." 

Before any fuel break is established, Steele would like the BLM to consult with the tribes. 

Another person who would like the BLM to get more input from the people who use the land is sheep and cattle rancher Hank Vogler. He's been ranching near Ely since 1984.

He said the BLM doesn't talk to ranchers about using cattle and sheep to help control some of the overgrowth of fuel like pinon and junipers.

"I agree with using livestock to create fuel breaks," he said, "I also agree with the removal of decadent brush." 

Vogel said when environmental regulations started to come into the West in the 80s the number of livestock went down and the number of fires went up. 

He believes there is so much overgrown pinon and junipers that Nevada is inline for disastrous fire activity.

"We're looking at a catastrophe no matter what," Vogel said, "I mean the perfect storm is going to happen and we're in the worst drought that we've been in since I've been here since 1984."

Besides allowing livestock to graze in certain areas to bring down the overgrowth, Vogel argues that certain fires should just be left to grow on their own instead of being put out. 

Theisen said targeted grazing, like Vogel proposed, is an option the agency is moving forward with, but he said when a fire is allowed to grow unchecked in some places invasive species like cheatgrass come back worse than before 

Wildfires are getting worse and fire season is getting longer thanks to climate change. 

 

In July 2018, the Martin Fire scorched more than 430,000 acres of Nevada rangeland. It was the biggest single fire in state history. 

 

Now, we’re heading into another fire season. And we just had a dry winter, plus record-breaking temperatures this spring. 

Theisen admits that fire breaks don't stop every fire but he believes they are important to firefighting efforts.

"We can't absolutely and utterly stop a fire with fuel break but they're just another tool," he said.

 

Guests

Ammon WilhelmProject Manager, BLM Idaho state office; Tim Theisen, Nevada Fire and Aviation, BLM Nevada state office; Liz Munn, Nevada Sagebrush Ecosystem Program Director, The Nature Conservancy; 

Rupert Steele, Chairman, Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation; Hank Vogler, sheep rancher, White Pine County 

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