A retrospective assessment of fuel break effectiveness for containing rangeland wildfires in the sagebrush biome

Journal of Environmental Management
By: , and 



Escalated wildfire activity within the western U.S. has widespread societal impacts and long-term consequences for the imperiled sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) biome. Shifts from historical fire regimes and the interplay between frequent disturbance and invasive annual grasses may initiate permanent state transitions as wildfire frequency outpaces sagebrush communities’ innate capacity to recover. Therefore, wildfire management is at the core of conservation plans for sagebrush ecosystems, especially critical habitat for species of conservation concern such as the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus; hereafter sage-grouse). Fuel breaks help facilitate wildfire suppression by modifying behavior through fuels modification and allowing safe access points for containment by firefighters. The Bureau of Land Management has proposed to roughly double the existing fuel break network in the western U.S., centered on the Great Basin. To our knowledge, no broad-scale examination of fuel break effectiveness or the environmental conditions under which fuel breaks are expected to be most effective has been conducted. We performed a retrospective assessment of probability of fuel break contributing to wildfire containment on recorded wildfire and fuel break interactions from 1985 to 2018 within the western U.S. We characterized environmental, fuels, and weather conditions within 500 m of wildfire contact, and within 5 km of the approaching wildfire. We used a binomial mixed model within a Bayesian framework to identify relationships between these variables and fuel break success. Fuel breaks were least successful in areas classified as having low resilience to disturbance and low resistance to invasion, in areas composed of primarily woody fuels, and when operating in high temperature and low precipitation conditions. Fuel breaks were most effective in areas where fine fuels dominated and in areas that were readily accessible. Maintenance history and fuel break type also contributed to the probability of containment. Overall results indicate a complex and sometimes paradoxical relationship between landscape characteristics that promote wildfire spread and those that impact fuel break effectiveness. Finally, we developed predictive maps of fuel break effectiveness by fuel break type to further elucidate these complex relationships and to inform urgently needed fuel break placement and maintenance priorities across the sagebrush biome.

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Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title A retrospective assessment of fuel break effectiveness for containing rangeland wildfires in the sagebrush biome
Series title Journal of Environmental Management
DOI 10.1016/j.jenvman.2023.117903
Volume 341
Year Published 2023
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) Forest and Rangeland Ecosys Science Center, Fort Collins Science Center, Western Ecological Research Center
Description 117903, 15 p.
Country United States
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