Fire Ecology, 2005
Volume 1, Issue 1
Fuelbreaks for Wildland Fire Management: A Moat or a Drawbridge for Ecosystem Fire Restoration?
Author: Timothy Ingalsbee, Ph.D.
Construction of fuelbreaks as a pre-suppression fuels treatment strategy in national forests has always been controversial (Omi 1996). Criticisms have been raised over the objectives, prescriptions, locations, methods, costs, impacts, and effectiveness of fuelbreak construction and maintenance (Agee et al 2000). Citizens have actively opposed fuelbreak projects out of fears that the breaks will fragment forests and degrade wildlife habitat, destroy scenic resources and look like industrial logging sites, or open up areas to unauthorized off-road vehicle use (Arno and Allison-Bunnel 2002). Fire scientists have also raised concerns that traditional linear fuelbreaks may not effectively function as wildfire containment lines during extreme weather conditions (Omi 1977a, Finney 2001). Increasingly, critiques have centered on the effects of fuelbreak projects on fire ecological processes, charging that fuelbreaks aid and abet fire exclusion, or, ironically, that fuelbreaks may actually increase fire spread and fireline intensity.
Despite the growing public controversy over fuelbreaks, Congressional acts and Administrative initiatives have made them more prevalent, with extensive fuelbreak systems and specific projects being proposed throughout the western U.S. For example, the Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group Forest Recovery Act “(for brevity, “QLG Project“) proposes to construct up to 2,415 kilometers (1,500 miles) of fuelbreaks in three national forests in the northern Sierra Nevada, while up to 498 kilometers (309 miles) of fuelbreaks are planned in the portion of the Siskiyou National Forest burned by the 2002 Biscuit Fire (USFS 1999, 2004). This paper will briefly discuss some of the critiques and controversies that have been raised against fuelbreak proposals on public lands managed by the Forest Service, and draw attention to the needs and opportunities for more fire ecology research. It is possible that current public opposition could be converted into future support if the objectives, uses, designs, and methods of fuelbreak projects are reconceptualized and rearticulated. Instead of viewing fuelbreaks solely as “moats“ emblematic of reactive wildfire suppression in a fire exclusion paradigm, fuelbreaks could become “drawbridges“ symbolizing pathways for a proactive program of community fire preparation and ecosystem fire restoration.