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Permanent fire breaks, targeted grazing used to help stop wildfires

Shrub-like Kochia, targeted grazing among lines of fire defense

By Brad Carlson

Published on September 17, 2018 11:11AM

A patch of forage kochia grows as part of the Bureau of Land Management’s Paradigm Project.

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A patch of forage kochia grows as part of the Bureau of Land Management’s Paradigm Project.

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U.S. Bureau of Land Management fire-fuels specialists in southwest Idaho late this year aim to seed forage kochia in sagebrush steppe where they’ve been clearing roadside fire breaks.

Also soon, BLM officials expect to get progress reports on the first year of targeted grazing in a similar landscape to the west, where anecdotal results were favorable.

BLM-led crews have been clearing roadside fire-fuel breaks from Blacks Creek Road east of Boise east to Glenns Ferry, and in some areas to the north and south. Ideally, the firebreaks will slow or help stop range fires while improving access for fire vehicles and crews.

“This fall, we will be disking about 1,400 acres along existing road systems to prepare the seed bed for forage kochia seeding later this winter,” said Courtney Wyatt, who leads implementation of the 10-year project, called Paradigm.

Kochia is known to slow a wildfire’s progress — if the compact, perennial shrub with a deep taproot manages to establish itself.

“Success of forage kochia seeds has a lot to do with preparing the seed bed,” Wyatt said.

The 100-foot fuel breaks are in place on BLM land that equipment could access, she said. Crews cleared sagebrush and other vegetation mechanically or by applying herbicide.

If seeding goes well enough, “we would look at an additional approximately 100 feet of fuel break,” Wyatt said. Such extensions would be farther from roads and contiguous to existing breaks.

Growing kochia can be tough at the beginning, said Lance Okeson, fire-fuels manager based in the BLM Boise District. BLM is working on 300 miles of fuel breaks.

“It is challenging to establish, has poor seed viability and does not establish where there is already seed competition” such as where prolific, non-native annual cheatgrass and medusahead cover the ground, he said. “We need to reduce all of that competition first.

Wyatt said established kochia outcompetes cheatgrass and medusahead, including in interior spaces between plants. Fires that run into kochia often lose speed as they go through a patchwork of plant material and open space rather than a contiguous “fire mat” of grass, she said. kochia’s flame heights are also lower.

Clearing roadside breaks took out sagebrush, though it was a small percentage of the total population and included some that was degraded, she said.

Wyatt said some landowners to the north have their own fuel-break plans.

To the west, BLM crews have been working on a roughly 30-mile stretch from outside Murphy, Idaho, west to the Oregon border. That fuel-break project is about 90 percent completed, said Steve Leonard, BLM Owyhee Field Office acting manager in Marsing, Idaho.

“As we move forward, we are looking at doing some chemical treatment to keep annual grasses out of the fuel break,” he said.

On another front, several cattle operators in the area recently completed the first year of a three-year project that aims to reduce fuel loads alongside the break using targeted grazing. Final reports are forthcoming.

“There is a learning curve for this for everybody, but all indications are that it is a success,” Leonard said. Cattle operators rode horses and used other methods to keep the animals in targeted areas.

It appears the grazing cattle reduced total fuels alongside the break, he said. “They consume annuals, and if we can manage the livestock up against that fuel break, then we complement the fuel break by reducing fuel loads further.”

Fuel breaks will require annual maintenance, Leonard said.

The fuel-break project in the Murphy area is part of a $67 million rehabilitation effort following the 2015 Soda Fire that burned 436 square miles of Sagebrush Steppe in Idaho and Oregon, the Associated Press reported in July.


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