As a difficult fire season has passed in the Pacific Northwest and California recovers from its summer of smoke, it is always at the forefront of landowners’ minds on how to protect their buildings and land from the devastation of a wildfire.
Every year, fires cause millions of acres of land to be unusable for many potential growing seasons, and millions of dollars are spent either directly or indirectly on every large-scale fire event.
Fire is unpredictable in when and where it can occur, but landowners can take preventative steps to protect their property from its devastating effects before the fire sparks.
On Aug. 19, 2015, the Washington Post stated that “Five states are now battling more than 10 large wildfires – California is contending with 16, Idaho 21, Montana 14, Oregon 11 and Washington 17.” Most terrifying, perhaps, was the Soda Fire, which scorched 283,686 acres in Idaho, burning up ranches, killing wild horses, even generating an alarming fire whirl.
The total acres burned so far in 2015 stook at a staggering 7.1 million as of October, with addition burning fires accounting for more than 1 million of that total.
“This is the earliest the number of national acres burned has been more than 7 million in the past 20 years,” noted the National Interagency Coordination Center – although the center acknowledges that 5 million of those acres burned in Alaska earlier this year. The average amount of acres burned each year is a little more than 6 million in the U.S.
Firebreaks are used in both prescribed burn areas and in wildfire suppression to slow or stop a fire before it reaches an undesirable burn area. Often a back burn will be created along the firebreak to enhance its effectiveness or more than one fuel or firebreak will be used.
Fuel breaks are strips or blocks of vegetation that have been altered to slow or control fire. A firebreak is strips of bare soil or fire-retarding vegetation meant to stop or control fire.
There are various types of man-made or natural firebreaks that can be incorporated by landowners to protect their property and facilities. Disturbed bare soil, natural or man-made water features, roads or dramatic changes in elevation can be effective firebreaks. Fuel breaks and green strips are more aesthetically pleasing.
Disturbed bare soil
Oftentimes, pre-owned equipment can be used to create this type of firebreak. A slope of less than 3 percent is ideal to avoid erosion to the land. Any vegetation removed from the break should be either piled well inside the land being protected or burned at a safe time of year to avoid it becoming fuel for an unplanned fire.
Water features, roads, elevation changes
Pre-existing roads can be incorporated as a firebreak. Natural and man-made water features can be useful and also offer a water option for when fire does break out. Canyons and cliffs can offer effective firebreak.
Both water and landscape features require little work but can make it difficult to fight fires that go through the break or are created by floating embers called spot fires.
Fuel breaks and green strips
With these types of breaks, you can still expect them to burn, but it may slow the fire down enough for responders to control the blaze before major damage is done.
Fuel breaks and green strips are meant to break the fuel chain by having vegetation that will either not burn well, are spaced far enough apart or both.
Using forage kochia in green strips has shown both anecdotal and research-based evidence of being an effective fuel-break plant and a desirable plant for cattle and wildlife.
Though forage kochia was brought into the U.S. for other purposes, it will compete with other nuisance and fuel-loaded weeds.
Forage kochia grows well in the western U.S., is fire-tolerant and remains green through the fire season, and it can also be used as a year-round forage. Other low-rainfall-area plants that can be effective in a green strip are crested and Siberian wheatgrass, Russian wild rye, alfalfa and blue or Lewis flax.
Small burnet is also a good forage for wildlife and livestock and stays green up until heavy snows. It is successful in green strips that receive 14 inches or more of precipitation.
It has been known to become weedy and may need more management. Other high-rainfall-area plants are hard fescue, sheep fescue and Russian wild rye.
It is not recommended to interseed the green strips and to instead remove all existing vegetation. Then prepare the seedbed using conventional tilling or herbicide or both in the area that will be the green strip. Seedbeds should be weed-free, firm and moist prior to planting.
Wildfire will be a natural disaster people will always deal with. There isn’t a cure or a fix for it. So as land stewards, being able to protect the viability of the land in our care and the structures and machinery we depend on for our livelihood is critical. What has been mentioned here is just a little bit of all the resources available on fire prevention and protecting lands using firebreaks and fuel breaks.
References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.
- University of Idaho Extension
- Adams County
- Email Tyanne Freeburg