Increased fire size and frequency coupled with annual grass invasion pose major challenges to sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) ecosystem conservation, which is currently focused on protecting sagebrush community composition and structure. A common strategy for mitigating potential fire is to use fuel treatments that alter the structure and amount of burnable material, thus reducing fire behavior and creating access points for fire suppression resources. While there is some recent information on the impacts of fuel treatments on ecological communities, we have little information on fuel treatment effectiveness at modifying fire behavior in sagebrush ecosystems. We present 10 years of data on fuel accumulation and the resultant modeled fire behavior in prescribed fire, mowed, herbicide (tebuthiuron or imazapic), and untreated control plots in the Sagebrush Treatment Evaluation Project (SageSTEP) network in the Great Basin, USA. Fuel data (i.e., aboveground burnable live and dead biomass) were collected in each treatment plot at Years 0 (pretreatment), 1, 2, 3, 6, and 10 posttreatment. We used the Fuel and Fire Tool fire behavior modeling program to test whether treatments impacted potential fire behavior. Prescribed fire initially removed 49% of the total fuel load and 75% of shrubs, and fuel loads remained reduced through Year 10. Mowing shifted fuels from the shrub canopy to the ground surface but did not change the total fuel amount. Prescribed fire and mowing increased herbaceous fuel by the second posttreatment year and that trend persisted through Year 10. Tebuthiuron treatments were ineffective at altering fuel loads. Imazapic suppressed herbaceous vegetation by 30% in Years 2 and 3 following treatment. The modified fuel beds in fire and mow treatments resulted in modeled flame lengths that were significantly lower than untreated control plots for the duration of the study, with shorter term reductions in reaction intensity and rate of spread. Understanding fuel treatment effectiveness will allow natural resource managers to evaluate trade-offs between protecting wildlife habitat and reducing the potential for high-intensity wildfire.
Ellsworth, L. M.; Newingham, B. A.; Shaff, S. E.; Williams, C. L.; Strand, E. K.; Reeves, M.; Pyke, D. A.; Schupp, E. W.; Chambers, J. C. 2022. Fuel reduction treatments reduce modeled fire intensity in the sagebrush steppe. Ecosphere. 13: e4064.