BLM sees greater use for fire breaks on rangeland

May 24 2012 - 10:42am

Images

Firefighters battle a wildfire south of Gardnerville, Nev., on Tuesday, May 22, 2012. The fast-moving blaze near the Nevada-California line destroyed at least two homes on Tuesday as it forced evacuations and sent up huge plumes of black smoke, witnesses said. (AP Photo/Cathleen Allison)
Firefighters battle a wildfire south of Gardnerville, Nev., on Tuesday, May 22, 2012. The fast-moving blaze near the Nevada-California line destroyed at least two homes on Tuesday as it forced evacuations and sent up huge plumes of black smoke, witnesses said. (AP Photo/Cathleen Allison)

SHOSHONE, Idaho -- As he squinted into a sea of native grasses, Joe Russell pointed to a cluster of tightly packed sagebrush.

Russell stood on the east side of a dirt road that winds up from the Kimama Fire Station, east of Shoshone. He quickly swept his arm to the other side of the road, pointing out the contrast between the plants on both sides.

"Can you see the difference?" he asked. "Do you see how the sagebrush is dispersed on this side?"

On the road's western side, the sagebrush was scarce for the first few hundred feet out from the road. Green grasses filled the gap. The arrangement is a designed effort to deter the spread of wildfires, and one that's quickly gaining attention from state and wildlife officials.

As a fire ecologist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Russell usually spends his time trying to repair the damage made by a wildfire on public lands. However, his job also includes finding ways to suppress wildfires.

Starting in the early 1990s, the BLM began working on a "green stripping" program to help suppress wildfires in its Shoshone Field Office. Workers planted a certain mixture of perennials that don't easily ignite on strips of land along roads on public lands.

It was a proactive solution that has helped keep wildfires from spreading into the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve or heading south to Kimama.

Now the agency is looking to increase its fire fuel break efforts for up to 60 miles in the Jarbidge area, and possibly into the Burley area as well.

Wildlife and state officials hope the strips will help prevent future wildfires that destroy sage grouse habitat. Earlier this year, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials listed wildfires as the number one threat to sage grouse. And as sage grouse face a possible listing as an endangered species, wildlife managers look to limit the risk of wildfires spreading into the bird's habitat.

However, fuel break projects have limitations. At times, clusters of sagebrush grow straight up to the road's edge. The projects require ripping out the native brush and putting in species like forage kochia, which are typically considered invasive if they don't have competition from other shrubs and grasses.

A strong enough wind can easily jump across 200 feet of fuel break perennials, Russell said. Also, fuel break projects can cost up to $150 to $200 per acre to cover the cost of seed and labor.

The BLM still has to complete its permitting process before it can begin its Jarbidge fuel projects, but Russell expects the agency to begin by next year.

"There's a rub though, Russell said. "At what point do you just leave the area alone and focus on rehab? It's just a matter of time that all this will burn again."

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(c)2012 The Times-News (Twin Falls, Idaho)

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