New NRCS Resource Aims to Reduce Wildfire Impacts in Sage Grouse Country

Flames racing across sagebrush

March 31, 2016

Collaborative publication explains how fuel breaks can minimize the risk of megafires in the sage-steppe

Download the Technical Note: Fuel Breaks to Reduce Large Wildfire Impacts in Sagebrush Ecosystems

A new resource released today by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will help private and public land managers work collaboratively to get ahead of the curve and reduce risks from megafires. Large-scale wildfires are one of the greatest threats to sage grouse and sagebrush ecosystems in the West. The longer, hotter, drier fire seasons and the expansion of invasive cheatgrass have resulted in a dramatic rise in the number of megafires that exceed suppression capability and grow exceptionally large.

While suppression efforts have been effective at stopping more than 97% of fires, the few that escape initial attack by firefighters can quickly become megafires. These megafires burn hundreds of thousands of acres, taking a heavy toll on sagebrush-dependent wildlife and the ranching communities whose livelihoods depend on working rangelands.

mowed fuel break

A mowed fuel break runs through sagebrush country.

In partnership with the Bureau of Land Management, the NRCS published this Technical Note explaining how to use strategic fuel breaks as a proactive tool to help reduce wildfire impacts on wildlife, grazing lands, and communities in the West. Fuel breaks are strips of land, typically along existing roads, where plants are managed to reduce fire risk. Well-placed fuel breaks reduce fire size and frequency by improving access for firefighters. They also help compartmentalize wildfires to constrain fire growth.

Though fuel breaks are an important part of the toolbox to help reduce wildfire size, they are not the ultimate solution to the wildfire problem in sagebrush ecosystems. They must be created carefully, since fuel breaks can disturb vegetation, increase weeds, and fragment wildlife habitat. It’s important to understand when and where to use fuel breaks effectively.

This publication will serve as an excellent reference for all partners working together to manage fire risks in the sage steppe. Compiled by an interdisciplinary team of scientists and resource specialists, it draws upon practical lessons learned and other existing publications to inform cooperative landscape planning efforts. It aims to help conservationists understand fuel break functions, set expectations for effectiveness, evaluate trade-offs, and implement fuel breaks on the ground.

Learn more about fuel breaks and wildfire in sage grouse country:

Read the press release from the NRCS Idaho.

Download the NRCS Technical Note on fuel breaks.Holloway fire from air

The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.