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BLM Introduces Plan to Create Fuel Breaks with Fire-Resistant Plants in the Snake River Plain

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Forage kochia can slow wildfires and out-compete cheatgrass, making it an attractive option to the BLM for creating fuel breaks in the new Paradigm Project. - BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • Forage kochia can slow wildfires and out-compete cheatgrass, making it an attractive option to the BLM for creating fuel breaks in the new Paradigm Project.
Lance Okeson introduced a scrubby, little, urchin-like plant called forage kochia during the May 12 Idaho Environmental Forum.

Okeson is the fire management specialist at the Boise District Office for the Bureau of Land Management. At the luncheon forum, he had a lot of good things to say about forage kochia.

"There is no limit," he said to the audience. This is the right time to start this project."

The project he's referring to is called the Paradigm Fuel Break Project. It stretches from Boise to Glenns Ferry, covering almost 300,000 acres and involves the creation of 274 miles of fuel breaks along I-84 and around the Snake River Plain.

The project goal is to protect threatened sage grouse habitat, make fighting wildfires safer and allow fires to be fought using less resources.

The agency will plant forage kochia—a non-native, perennial shrub that is fire resistant and outcompetes cheatgrass—to create the fuel breaks. Okeson said wildfire has trouble jumping from shrub to shrub, so having these fuel breaks in place before the fires even ignite will slow fires down and let firefighters respond more effectively. 

Usually, firefighters create fuel breaks after a fire has already sparked. They'll use bulldozers and/or hand crews to tear vegetation out of the ground and stop a fire from progressing. But having those fuel breaks already on the ground, especially along highways where the majority of human-caused fires ignite, means when firefighting resources are slim, the still fire won't be able to spread as quickly. The fuel breaks will be up to 300 feet wide—covering 4 percent of the project area—with the sage grouse habitat inside. 

According to Okeson, wildfire is the biggest threat facing sage grouse habitat. Areas of the Snake River Plain are strongholds for the little birds, and Okeson said wildfire spreads through rapidly. Lightening-caused fire especially is capable of damaging thousands of acres in a matter of hours.

Forage kochia can slow wildfires and out-compete cheatgrass, making it an attractive option to the BLM for creating fuel breaks in the new Paradigm Project. - BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • Forage kochia can slow wildfires and out-compete cheatgrass, making it an attractive option to the BLM for creating fuel breaks in the new Paradigm Project.
"Forage kochia is non-native, but if it works, that's what matters," Okeson said.

He added that his agency has tried native plant options, but without good results. He said he's confident the plant won't spread and become invasive. Forage kochia has been used as part of seed mixtures to help rehabilitate land from wildfire for the past 30 years and he hasn't seen it spread much. He said some research exists that contradicts him, but he said he has "experience" on his side.

"If we don't do something, it's just a matter of time," Okseson said. "We lose millions of acres in a 24-hour period. This will give us more flexibility to fight fires with less resources. We chose this area because it's the worst of the worst for wildfire damage."

Okeson told Boise Weekly  he was unsure of the price tag on the project, but estimated that it could range from $30 to $150 per acre of fuel breaks. Planting could begin in the spring or winter of 2016.