BLM project targets wildfire in top burn area
By John O’Connell
BOISE, Idaho — Bureau of Land Management officials are concluding an environmental assessment and hope to start work this fall on an extensive network of fuel breaks to protect rangeland in arguably the nation’s most fire-prone area.
The agency’s Paradigm Project — named for its aim to shift paradigms regarding land management — encompasses nearly 294,000 acres of federal, state and private land along the Interstate 84 corridor from Boise to Glenns Ferry.
According to BLM, three-fourths of the project area has burned during the past 55 years, and invasive cheatgrass and medusa head weed have taken over, outcompeting native plants and contributing to more frequent and larger fires.
Since 1980, 618 fires have ignited within the Paradigm area, including 487 that were human-caused. Lance Okeson, assistant fire management officer over fuels for BLM’s Boise District, said the project entails planting forage kochia in 300-foot-wide fuel breaks along both shoulders of 187 miles of roadways. Kochia, a nonnative shrub that thrives in arid environments, is one of the few plants proven to outcompete medusa head weed and cheatgrass on the Snake River Plain. It stays green late into summer and prevents invasive plants from growing.
Okeson is confident fire breaks containing the plant would stop the spread of human-caused fires originating from roadways. He said a few existing forage kochia patches in the Paradigm area were planted about 30 years ago for fire rehabilitation and have stopped several wildfires throughout the years.
Once kochia is established, it requires virtually no maintenance. Okeson said concerns must still be resolved about the potential for kochia to compete with slickspot peppergrass, which is under consideration for an endangered species listing.
The idea for the project originated from a conference hosted in early 2011 by the Boise District Resource Advisory Council. Okeson said project environmental reviews have been ongoing for three years, and during that time 85 fires have burned 60,000 acres within the Paradigm area.
Okeson anticipates the project could take up to a decade to fully implement and could cost anywhere from $400,000 to $800,000 annually during the first few years.
Had the fire breaks been in place last summer, Mountain Home rancher Steve Damele believes a devastating wildfire that swept through his range could have been stopped. He explained the Mud Fire leapt over Martha Avenue and Mayfield Road and burned another 50,000 acres before eventually joining with the massive Pony Fire.
“Nothing is a complete show stopper, but (forage kochia) is very helpful,” Damele said.
Neil Helmick, who also ranches within the project area, said he and a neighbor have dug fire breaks along I-84 to protect their private range land for several years.
“The number of fires in that area is down to almost zero,” Helmick said.
His priority would be to plant kochia for rehabilitation after fires, though he believes “anything they do will help.” He also supports increasing grazing intensity in the corridor to reduce fuels.