BLM plans to build 11,000 miles of fuel breaks

BLM Fuelbreak EIS

On Friday, February 14 the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released the Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for Fuel Breaks in the Great Basin. This Final PEIS provides for the construction and maintenance of a system of up to 11,000 miles of fuel breaks within a 223 million acre area to aid in the control of wildfires in portions of Idaho, Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, and Utah.

The Preferred Alternative outlined in the PEIS analyzes manual, chemical and mechanical treatments, including prescribed fire, seeding, and targeted grazing to construct and maintain a system of fuel breaks. These treatments would be implemented along roads and rights-of-way on BLM-administered lands to minimize new disturbance and wildlife habitat fragmentation and to maximize accessibility for wildland firefighters.

BLM Fuelbreak Map

The estimated total cost of developing and producing the PEIS was $2.3 million.

“Wildfires pose an enormous threat to rangelands in the Great Basin – rangelands that people depend on for both recreational opportunities and their livelihoods, and that wildlife rely on for habitat,” said BLM Deputy Director for Policy and Programs William Perry Pendley. “Fuel breaks are one of the most important tools we have to give wildland firefighters a chance to safely and effectively contain rapidly moving wildfires and potentially reduce wildfire size.”

cost constructing fuel breaks BLM
From the BLM PEIS

Wildfires in sagebrush communities in the Great Basin states are becoming more frequent and larger, fueled by large, unbroken swaths of grasses, brush and other vegetation. Over 13.5 million acres of historically sagebrush communities on BLM land burned within the project area between 2009 and 2018. Wildfires that consume sagebrush provide the opportunity for invasive annual grasses to increase, making future large and severe wildfires more likely.

BLM Fuelbreak
Example of a mowed fuel break. BLM photo.

The concept behind fuel breaks is to break up or fragment continuous fuels by reducing vegetation in key locations. When a wildfire burns into a fuel break, the flame lengths decrease and its progress slows, making it safer and easier for firefighters to control.

An electronic copy of the Final PEIS and associated documents is available for public review for 30 days on the BLM Land Use Planning and NEPA register at Other documents related to the EIS are at the BLM’s ePlanning website.  The BLM will issue a Record of Decision after the end of the public review period.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

10 thoughts on “BLM plans to build 11,000 miles of fuel breaks”

  1. My concern is funding.

    This will be a multi-year project just to construct the initial fuelbreaks. Then they require periodic maintenance or the fuelbreak disappears as the vegetation regrows.
    You will still be building the last of the fuelbreaks as the first ones need retreatment. Will the funding be there to do both — finish the initial project while re-treating the first ones built? The BLM is expecting Congress to keep funding promises indefinitely into the future. LOL!
    The FS built a massive network of fuelbreaks in the early 1970s. Where are they now? Every one disappeared over time as maintenance funding dried up and priorities changed.

    This is a terrific idea. My fear is it will be a temporary effort that will eventually fade away.

  2. Let’s see: you disturb the ground to create a fuel break (kinda like a dozer line) and guess what grows back? Yeah, cheatgrass. Wonder how it burns? Another “Duh” moment in the annals of fire management.

    1. Here on my district, we use fuel breaks.

      We mow and treat 150′ on each side of the main county roads out in our big desert annually. Roughly we have about 10 areas sectioned off with these fuel breaks, 25,000 – 30,000 acre chunks. As an initial attack IC, I have used them plenty of times. I’ve burned off them, I’ve had airtankers drop along them, I’ve corralled fires into them, I’ve anchored off them, and they work plain and simple.

      Your duh moment is without understanding the ecology of certain areas, or those that labor to keep it out of our district. Our fuel breaks lack the annual Bromus tectorum (cheatgrass), and have native bunch grass, and often times more fire resistant Agropyron cristatum (crested wheat) throughout.

      Our fuel breaks work, and we are adding more in other areas of the district. All essentially for the cost of renting 4 tractors and putting engine captains to work doing the treatments.

      It seems to be popular to hate on the government. Here’s an opportunity to help the boots on the ground, mitigate potential impacts to communities and resources, and it’s shot down as a poor idea.

      I gladly welcome more funding for more fuel breaks. But I’m the one that will use them, not any of you that have posted so far.

    2. As a firefighter, I think this is awesome. I’d way rather fire off a road with 150′ of cheatgrass before the heavy fuels start, than a two track with chest-high sage and juniper. That’s just me though.

  3. Fascinating, but without an accompanying cost estimate, this is essentially DOA.

    This cannot be cheap to implement or maintain, and this sort of active management is the first thing stripped out of budgets.

  4. What needs to accompany the fuel breaks is a change in tactics…I started my fire career in those vast expanses of blm land back in the mid 70’s.
    In my opinion, we are seeing more and more fires that are not going to be caught at IA ….I don’t care how many large airtankers you order and the “show” that gets put on.
    I am thinking firing operations done from county roads, fuel breaks such as described here, and other sources that can hold backfires need to be considered as an IA tool, especially when resources are maxed out and conditions are prime.
    It’s a lot to put on the backs of these young men and women who roll in as an IA I.C…..there would need to be real support from the top to make this a viable option ( KEY WORD….Option ),
    at the end of the day I would rather see 2 or3 or6000 acres fired off to get a box around an uncatchable fire than see it go gonzo….
    3 fires in NE nevada scorched 3/4 of a million acres in 2018, in places that I would never have expected such extensive and continuous fire…..obviously anchor, flank and pinch isn’t working.

    Just some thoughts from an old guy who thought IA was the coolest job in the world…

  5. You’re right. These fuel breaks make safety zones for people and equipment but may be limited in actually stopping fires.

  6. Having personally witnessed the Woolsey fire jump an 8 lane freeway with clear space on either side in less than two minutes it seems questionable whether these fuel breaks are still effective in managing the intense fires we have today.

    1. Won’t be effective on every fire. No one ever claimed they are. A wind driven fire will still overwhelm a fuelbreak.
      But most fires are not like the Woolsey or Camp Fire. Only 1 or 2 % of all fires start under those extreme conditions. For the rest of the fires a fuelbreak will be highly effective.
      Let us not fall into the fallacy of “It will not work in every case so do not do it at all.”

      1. Fuels treatments in timber fuels may help stop the progression of a fire but more importantly change the fuel structure to lower local fire intensities and reduce loss to valuable assets or tree loss in critical habitat/watersheds/etc. What use is a fuel brake in grasslands that promotes the spread of cheat grass and is only effective in mild wind conditions? The NEPA planning around this project has been a joke. For almost the entire public comment period the entire website was down or full of dead links. There has been zero spatial/statistical analysis of where to place treatments to be the most effective. From what has been presented to date the project looks like nothing more that a huge waste of taxpayer dollars.


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