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Vegetation, fuels, and fire-behavior responses to linear fuel-break treatments in and around burned sagebrush steppe: Are we breaking the grass-fire cycle?

April 2, 2024


Linear fuel breaks are being implemented to moderate fire behavior and improve wildfire containment in semiarid landscapes such as the sagebrush steppe of North America, where extensive losses in perennial vegetation and ecosystem functioning are resulting from invasion by exotic annual grasses (EAGs) that foster large and recurrent wildfires. However, fuel-break construction can also pose EAG invasion risks, which must be weighed against the intended fire-moderation benefits of the treatments. We investigated how shrub reductions (mowing, cutting), pre-emergent EAG-herbicides, and/or drill seedings of fire-resistant perennial bunchgrasses (PBGs) recently applied to create a large fuel-break system affected native and exotic plant abundances and their associated fuel loading and predicted fire behavior.


In heavily EAG-invaded areas, herbicides reduced EAG and total herbaceous cover without affecting PBGs for 2–3 years and reduced predicted fire behavior for 1 year (from the Fuel Characteristic Classification System). However, surviving post-herbicide EAG cover was still > 30%, which was sufficient fuel to exceed the conventional 1.2-m-flame length (FL) threshold for attempting wildfire suppression with hand tools. In less invaded shrubland, shrub reduction treatments largely reduced shrub cover and height by ~ half without increasing EAGs, but then redistributed the wood to ground level and increased total herbaceous cover. Herbicides and/or drill seeding after shrub reductions did not affect EAG cover, although drill seedings increased PBG cover and exotic forbs (e.g., Russian thistle). Fire behavior was predicted to be moderated in only one of the many yearly observations of the various shrub-reduction treatment combinations. Over all treatments and years, FLs were predicted to exceed 1.2 m in 13% of simulations under average (11 km h−1) or high (47 km h−1) wind speed conditions and exceed the 3.4-m threshold for uncontrollable fire in 11% of simulations under high-wind speeds only.


Predicted fire-moderation benefits over the first 4 years of fuel break implementation were modest and variable, but, generally, increases in EAGs and their associated fire risks were not observed. Nonetheless, ancillary evidence from shrublands would suggest that treatment-induced shifts from shrub to herbaceous fuel dominance are expected to improve conditions for active fire suppression in ways not readily represented in available fire models.

Publication Year 2024
Title Vegetation, fuels, and fire-behavior responses to linear fuel-break treatments in and around burned sagebrush steppe: Are we breaking the grass-fire cycle?
DOI 10.1186/s42408-024-00266-y
Authors Matthew Germino, Samuel J. Price, Susan J Prichard
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Fire Ecology
Index ID 70252765
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center