A plan to create a fuel break system along 271 miles of roads in southwest Idaho and southeast Oregon to limit the size of destructive rangeland wildfires and protect habitat for sage grouse has been approved, federal authorities announced.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management in a decision released Wednesday says the fuel breaks will be along existing roads on BLM-managed land in and around a 2015 rangeland wildfire that scorched about 436 square miles.
The area supports cattle grazing and some 350 species of wildlife, including imperiled sage grouse. The burned area is now the focus of a 5-year, $67 million rehabilitation effort.
Officials say the work is expected to begin this spring and will include seeding, mowing, chemical treatments and grazing in specific areas to reduce vegetation.
Lance Okeson, who is with the BLM’s Boise District Fire Fuels Program, said the fuel breaks will extend 200 feet from either side of specific roads selected for strategic value.
He said the fuel breaks themselves are not intended to be a final defense against wildfires, but instead make it safer for firefighters to get close enough to the flames to be effective in stopping them.
Specifically, he said, the fuel breaks are meant to reduce wildfire flames that can be more than 20 feet high to less than 10 feet. By doing that, firefighters will be able to use roads that would otherwise be too dangerous.
“You can move up and down the line and address those flame fronts,” Okeson said. “But you have to have access and you have to have mobility.”
One of the concerns with fuel breaks, experts say, is that they can chop up the large landscapes of unbroken sagebrush habitat sage grouse need to be successful.
“You’re basically fragmenting the landscape to avoid or reduce the much worse fragmentation that occurs with a runaway fire,” said Matt Germino, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who has been working on the wildfire rehabilitation from the 2015 fire.
Okeson said fragmentation is one of the major problems the agency faces when deciding on fuel breaks. But he also said other areas in Idaho, notably the Snake River Plain, have seen repeated giant rangeland wildfires that have wiped out sagebrush. The fuel breaks in Idaho and Oregon are aimed at breaking that repeat wildfire cycle.
Cheatgrass, a fire-prone invasive annual that displaces native perennials with wildfire, is the reason for many of the giant rangeland fires. It fueled the 2015 wildfire and has already returned to some of the burned areas, creating the potential for a repeat wildfire in the area. Fuel breaks, officials say, could help prevent that.
“We’re burning way more country on a yearly basis than we’re able to restore,” Okeson said. “We’ve got things really out of whack here.”
On a related front, the agency is also considering a separate fuel break system that includes portions of Idaho, Oregon and Nevada and is in habitat that Okeson said is some of the best intact sagebrush remaining in the region. That project has just gone through a public comment process, with multiple steps before a final decision is made.
One reason federal agencies are interested in protecting sagebrush habitat is because it’s needed by sage grouse.
The ground-dwelling, chicken-sized birds are found in 11 Western states, where between 200,000 to 500,000 remain, down from a peak population of about 16 million. The federal government chose not to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will review the bird’s status within five years.