Beyond The Border Zone

April 25, 2024
The new fire triangle: commitment to managing fuel load, cooperation among landowners and communication with stakeholders.

For tens of thousands of years, nature had its own way of managing fuel load. Those are the wildfires of the past, low-burning fires that cleared forests and rangelands of the grasses and undergrowth that can become ladder fuels. Modern fire-suppression efforts, as most land managers and vegetation managers have long known and for all the good intentions, have contributed to what exists today: forests filled with tinder-dry undergrowth and vast expanses of land carpeted with invasive annual grasses that can and do serve as fuel for fires, which have been particularly devastating in the Great Plains and Western states.

While modern technologies like remote imaging and robotics are helping to better protect first responders and homeowners and deploy firefighting resources more strategically, it is the existing tools and practices — many of them decidedly low tech — that may well be the most effective at minimizing damage from potential fires in the future. Conversations with neighboring landowners, sharing of land management goals and practices among the various private and public stakeholders, and firm commitments to doing the hard work of managing the fuel load within forests and on rangelands can and must be components of any modern fire mitigation strategy.

Managing Fuel Load

It has been said before, but it is worth repeating. Of the three necessary ingredients for fire — heat, oxygen and fuel — there is only one over which we have any significant degree of control: fuel. But to understand how to best manage ladder fuel levels, it helps to understand where the electric utility industry has come from and where it is today.

Historically, the fire cycle — particularly in the American West — was based on the presence of native bunch grasses. These grasses grow in scattered clumps separated by bare ground, making for a noncontiguous fuel source that, in the event of a fire, burns low and slow. Today, invasive annual grasses like cheatgrass cover a significant portion of the Western and Plains states, creating a three-fold problem:

  • These grasses are among the first to green up in late winter or early spring, and they can use much of the available subsurface moisture before native grasses can emerge and become established.
  • Having pulled what moisture they can from already drought-stricken ground, these grasses dry out quickly in the summer heat, creating a near-perfect fuel source.
  • Because grasses like cheatgrass have a more contiguous, carpetlike growth pattern, any fire will burn faster and travel farther than it would among more widely dispersed native bunch grasses.

In addition, long-accepted fire-suppression practices and policies, while based on the best available knowledge at the time of their establishment, have contributed to the problem at least to some degree. It is an understandable instinct to want to preserve the natural environment and protect the people living within and around them, but by doing so, the natural fire cycle is being altered even more, leaving an abundance of ladder fuels in forests and wilderness areas.

However, today’s vegetation and land management professionals — and, perhaps more importantly, the departments and agencies they work for — are recognizing the importance of managing fuel loads and stem densities within their areas of responsibility. Shaded fuel breaks, or areas of forest that have been cleared of undergrowth through mechanical or chemical means, can reduce ladder fuels and help to slow a fire’s spread, giving firefighters time to reassemble and redeploy. Integrated vegetation management practices that incorporate highly selective herbicides and application methods can allow low-growing, slower-burning native grasses and ground covers to flourish and replace invasive annuals, while at the same time helping to create, restore and maintain a habitat critical to pollinators and other wildlife.

However, the problem is as obvious as it is unavoidable. A utility can only control fuel loads and stem densities on its own rights-of-way, leaving critical infrastructure vulnerable to the actions or inactions of neighboring landowners. What, then, about the land beyond the border zones?

Alliance Of Shared Goals

No utility operates in a vacuum; the vegetation management practices of nearby landowners can and do impact a fire’s behavior near rights-of-way, substations and other infrastructure. Therefore, it is worth remembering that landowners and land managers in fire-prone areas almost certainly share similar goals: reducing the risk of fire, mitigating its ability to spread, and minimizing the human and material costs associated with fires that do spread, all while being sound stewards and restoring, to as much of a degree as possible, the balance that existed before nature’s course was altered.

While a how-to manual on the coordination of large-scale efforts by private, institutional and governmental landowners would be impossible to produce, any meaningful degree of cooperation must begin with an acknowledgment of those shared goals and a commitment to taking the actions necessary to achieve them.

A Commitment To Act

Too often, vegetation and land managers facing budgetary shortfalls, changing regulations and shifting policies are forced to effectively give up on critical fire mitigation efforts after a one-time treatment or application. But, reducing the risk of catastrophic fire means reducing stem density and fuel loads in at-risk areas and is a long-term effort requiring strong commitments from every participating stakeholder.

With that commitment comes both rewards and responsibilities. Utilities integrating selective herbicides and application methods into their long-term vegetation management programs, for example, can see their annual vegetation management expenses significantly reduced, with no sacrifice to program efficacy. In turn, a commitment to fire mitigation implies a responsibility to evaluate new and existing practices, advocate for sensible solutions, work with landowners, public institutions and governmental agencies to establish practical guidelines, refine those guidelines until they become established protocols, and clearly communicate intentions and findings as well as the data supporting those decisions.

Communicating Deliberately

Cooperation cannot exist without communication — and not just communication between utilities and neighboring landowners. Members of the public, elected officials and even members of the electric utility industry’s own agencies and organizations are demanding more transparency into the practices and products used for vegetation management and, ultimately, fire mitigation. These practices frequently involve chainsaws and herbicides, tools the public may be hesitant to accept as components of sound land and vegetation management.

Therefore, part of a utility’s challenge lies in addressing the concerns of a skeptical public. Data both widely available and easily shared proves these tools and methods are critical components of a sound fire mitigation strategy and proves their effectiveness at protecting that which the public cares deeply about: wildlife, pollinators and the natural ecosystems within which they live. Entities and agencies dependent on these practices can and must use every opportunity and piece of available data to help ease the concerns of a public that is less hesitant than ever to voice an opinion and demand action.

Ultimately, catastrophic wildfire is a systemic risk that cannot and will not be addressed solely from within a utility’s own rights-of-way. While it may be tempting to deflect responsibility onto a neighbor, the nature of fire itself requires utilities to adopt more holistic prevention and mitigation strategies, using every available tool and involving every impacted stakeholder.

Jerome Otto is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, and holds degrees in agricultural economics and animal science. Since 1987, he has held a variety of sales positions with Dow, now Corteva Agriscience. Jerome is a market development specialist for Corteva, serving the range, pasture, and land management markets in the western United States.

Will Hatler, field scientist with Corteva Agriscience, is responsible for research, development, and technical support for the Corteva pasture and land management business. Previously, Will spent 10 years with Texas A&M University Extension Service as Rangeland Program Specialist. He received a Master of Science from Tarleton State University.

A graduate of North Dakota State University and Montana State University, Trent Brusseau is a vegetation management specialist with Corteva Agriscience serving Idaho, Utah, eastern Oregon and Washington. His work is currently focused on helping customers improve rangeland habitat and resiliency.

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