Some prescribed fires are more challenging than others

Prescribed fire fuel break Angeles National Forest
Prescribed fire on the Clear Creek fuel break in the Angeles National Forest. ANF photo.

Firefighters on the Angeles National Forest are using prescribed fire on the Clear Creek fuel break north of Los Angeles that separates the Arroyo Seco from the Big Tujunga drainages.

“It helps to protect some of the largest communication sites anywhere, some of LA’s drinking water storage, and major communities,” said Robert Garcia, Fire Chief on the Angeles National Forest. “It is also on some of the toughest ground we have on the ANF making initial attack very difficult. The adjacent slopes are unfortunately known from such incidents as Woodwardia, Bryant and more recently the origins of the 2009 Station Fire.”

When I worked on the Laguna and El Cariso Hotshots nearby on the Cleveland NF, to us the ANF was infamous for its extremely steep slopes, which are evident in these photos.

Prescribed fire fuel break Angeles National Forest
Prescribed fire on the Clear Creek fuel break in the Angeles National Forest. ANF photo.
Prescribed fire fuel break Angeles National Forest
Prescribed fire on the Clear Creek fuel break in the Angeles National Forest. ANF photo.
Prescribed fire fuel break Angeles National Forest
Prescribed fire on the Clear Creek fuel break in the Angeles National Forest. ANF photo.
map Prescribed fire fuel break Angeles National Forest
Clear Creek fuel break in the Angeles National Forest. ANF.

In most other locations super-steep slopes are not a serious obstacle while conducting prescribed fires, as in the example below.

Prescribed fire at Chickasaw National Recreation Area
Prescribed fire at Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Oklahoma by M. Fidler, February, 2013.

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 https://go.usa.gov/xnQcG. 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.

A ball and chain is not always a bad thing

At least not when it is used to reduce a fire hazard

ball and chain vegetation management fire hazard

This image posted on Twitter by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CAL FIRE, reminded me of when I was involved with a ball and chain operation one winter on the Sitton Peak project on the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California in the early 1970s.

The objective is to rip out or crush brush in order to reduce the wildfire hazard. It can be used to create a fuel break in lighter brush, or knock down heavier brush to make it easier and safer to conduct a prescribed fire.

When I was the contracting officer’s representative (COR) on the project a large dozer pulled about 100 to 200 feet of anchor chain that weighed 40 to 80 pounds per link. At the far end of the chain was a Navy surplus steel ball, a float, about five or six feet in diameter, that had been used with an anti-submarine net. The float was designed to support a net made of steel cable that was stretched across the mouth of a harbour or a strait for protection against submarines. A seven-mile long net was in place across the entrance to San Francisco Bay on December 7, 1941.

Anti-submarine net floats
Anti-submarine net and floats. US Navy photo
anti-submarine net
U.S. Navy

When the system was used on the Sitton Peak project we found that the ball needed to be heavier, so we filled it with water. That didn’t last long because the ball led a hard life, constantly being dragged across the ground and over rocks. The water leaked out through gouges in the steel. We later experimented with other materials inside the ball, including gravel, that were retained for a longer period of time.

Landscape architects liked the appearance of a chained fuel break better than those constructed by a dozer blade because it left some vegetation and a feathered edge — a more natural shape with fewer straight lines. As the dozer pulled the assembly, the chain encountered variable resistance and would temporarily get hung up on a rock or a heavy brush patch. If the dozer was driving along a ridge top, this would cause the ball to traverse up and down the slope, leaving a zig-zag or irregular edge.

When used on flat ground, the ball is positioned and then the dozer drives in circles around it.

With the brush crushed, close to the ground, and later dried out, it can then be treated with prescribed fire that burns less intensely than standing live brush in the summer.

A ball and chain is not exactly a light-hand-on-the-land system. There is serious soil and vegetation disturbance, so before considering the method, any sensitive plants, animals, and artifacts need to be carefully evaluated.

Back in 2009 I wrote about a misadventure that involved the dozer we used on the Sitton Peak project. It became seriously stuck in mud while “walking” back from the project on a dirt road. Four trucks that came to rescue the dozer also got stuck in the same area. It was one of those incidents where rescuers became victims. The article has photos I took of the FUBAR incident.

BLM to develop EISs for fuel breaks and fuel reduction

The programmatic Environmental Impact Statements would streamline approvals for projects

Above: A fuel break created along a road by mowing. BLM photo.

(Originally published at 9:55 a.m. MDT December 30, 2017)

In May the U.S. Geological Survey began an effort to study fuel breaks in the Great Basin to evaluate their effectiveness as well as the ecological costs and benefits. On December 22 the Bureau of Land Management announced the agency is proposing to develop two Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) for BLM lands in the states of Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, California, Utah, and Washington. One will cover the construction of fuel breaks while the other is for fuels reduction and rangeland restoration.

The process is expected to result in two programmatic EIS documents that would cover projects region-wide to gain efficiencies in subsequent National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analyses. The blanket approval will mean that individual landscape-scale fuel breaks and fuel reduction proposals will only need minor additional environmental reviews to proceed.

Fuel breaks are intended to interrupt the continuity of vegetation making it easier to control or stop the spread of wildfires. There is no guarantee of success since wind-blown burning embers can be lofted hundreds or thousands of feet ahead of a flaming front, crossing the breaks.

fuel break herbicide aerial application
An aircraft sprays herbicide on a BLM fuelbreak. BLM image.

Landscape-scale fuel reduction would slow the spread and reduce the intensity and resistance to control of a wildfire making it easier for firefighters to keep a small fire from becoming a megafire. Another goal of the vegetation modification is to restore the rangelands habitat in order to provide multiple use opportunities for user groups and habitat for plants and animals. The projects are designed to reduce the threat of habitat loss from fires and restore rangeland’s productivity while “supporting the western lifestyle”, the BLM said in a statement.

The public has until February 20, 2018 to submit comments related to the programmatic EISs by any of the following methods:

  • Website: https://go.usa.gov/xnQcG
  • Email: GRSG_PEIS@blm.gov.
  • Fax: 208–373–3805.
  • Mail: Jonathan Beck, 1387 S. Vinnell Way, Boise, ID 83709
BLM fuel break
BLM fuel break. BLM photo.

BLM: fuel breaks stopped spread of Centennial Fire

The BLM fuel breaks are initially created by using herbicides

Above: screenshot from the BLM video showing a fuel break.

(Originally published at 10 a.m. MST December 2, 2017)

The Bureau of Land Management produced this video that explains their philosophy of creating fuel breaks in Idaho by using herbicides followed by planting fire resistant vegetation such as “Stabilizer” Siberian wheatgrass. The 2017 Centennial Fire west of Twin Falls would have grown much larger, they claim, had it not stopped at a fuel break 275 feet wide.

fuel break herbicide aerial application
An aircraft sprays herbicide on a BLM fuelbreak. Screenshot from the BLM video.

USGS to study fuel break effects on wildfires, sage-grouse

Above: Roads through areas prone to wildfire act as fuel breaks, disrupting the fuel continuity, potentially reducing the rate of fire spread. The areas on either side of the road have also been mowed to reduce vegetation height. Photo courtesy of BLM.

The U.S. Geological Survey is gearing up for a project across the Great Basin studying how effective fuel breaks are, simultaneously evaluating their ecological costs and benefits.

Fuel breaks like sandy roads or other barriers are intended to reduce fire size and frequency by slowing or altogether halting fire’s spread to the other side of the break. Still, questions remain about whether fuel breaks protect sagebrush and sage-grouse, the USGS said in a comments discussing the new research. 

“We want to determine the extent to which fuel breaks can help protect existing habitat from wildland fires, paying particular attention to how such breaks affect sagebrush habitat, sage-grouse, and other sagebrush-dependent species,” the USGS said in a statement. 

Additional information about the research can be found on the USGS site.