Nevertheless, fuel breaks are prone to a number of problems and paradoxes that can undermine their intended purposes. For example, the Forest Service typically uses timber sales to construct fuel breaks in forest ecosystems, but after the logging is completed, effective slash treatment sometimes does not occur. For a number of reasons, fuel break systems have rarely been maintained, and most have fallen into disrepair and disuse, sometimes converting to a fuel type more flammable than the original forest cover. Additionally, large fires burning during severe fire weather conditions can cause long-range spotting that readily breaches most fuel break widths, and given extreme or erratic fire behavior, fuel breaks can be unsafe and ineffective for firefighters.
Interest in and support for federal fuel break programs has historically been episodic and cyclical, and over the last ten years support for fuel break projects has been increasing among land management agencies, timber industry advocates, and members of Congress. Forest conservation advocates, on the other hand, are highly critical of fuel break projects and programs. Opposition has especially been strong for projects that propose using commercial logging or herbicide spraying for fuel break construction or maintenance. Conservationists are challenging not only the methods used to create fuel breaks, but also the strategic objectives and tactical uses of them; namely, their use in furthering fire suppression and exclusion goals.
As part of the Biscuit Fire Recovery Project, the Siskiyou National Forest is developing an innovative proposal to construct fuel breaks that address several of the criticisms raised by forest conservationists, and yet meet the needs of federal fire managers. In addition to aiding traditional fire suppression objectives, the purpose of the Biscuit Fire fuel breaks (termed Fuels Management Zones by Biscuit Planners) would be to help reintroduce fire through large-scale prescribed burning and wildland fire use. Accordingly, the design, method, and goal for the Biscuit Project's fuel breaks has the potential to bring together the interests of fire scientists, forest conservationists, and federal land managers in support of restoring fire-adapted forest ecosystems with active fuels and fire management using fuel breaks.
This paper will provide a critical review of some of the history, philosophy and practice of past forest fuel break construction, maintenance, and use. Examples from specific fuel break-based fire recovery projects will illustrate general critiques that forest conservationists are using to challenge fuel break timber sales. The paper will offer suggestions on how federal land managers can gain collaborative local community involvement and win support from nonprofit conservation organizations for wildland fire management programs utilizing fuel breaks.