Lander County commissioners and residents heard a presentation from District Manager Doug Furtado and Fire Management Officer Brock Uhlig of the Battle Mountain District Office of the Bureau of Land Management on their roadside fuel break projects and a possible cooperative agreement between the county and the BLM.
The Battle Mountain district has been very successful over the years in initial attack fire suppression and Furtado stated, “We’ve been fortunate enough to get near 100% of our fires out over the last four years, and that success is due in a large part to agreements we have with the counties and our approach to initial attack, and we are always thinking of ways we could implement management practices to reduce the potential for large wildfires.”
Furtado said he looked at a map of the county in 2016 after the road inventories were completed and thought, “All those roads represent potential fuel breaks. Oftentimes when we have large wildfires, at the end, when you look at the fire map, you just see black crossing over all these roads because they weren’t satisfactory in stopping fire spread.”
Furtado and Uhlig came up with the concept to utilize the existing roads as fuel breaks and expand cooperation with the counties, local landowners and ranchers. “The BLM has limited resources and the only way to expand our effectiveness in fire suppression is to increase the amount of cooperation and partners that we have,” said Furtado.
Their proposed action involved identifying priority road segments, those best for fire suppression and protecting private property and sage grouse habitat, and they chose Lander and Eureka counties as their pilot project.
Furtado stated he would do so in partnership with the counties, the Nevada Department of Transportation, Nevada Division of Forestry, and any other landowners who are interested and capable of helping them monitor and maintain road segments they would be responsible for prior to the fire season each year.
“We had a stakeholder meeting in 2017, and we presented this concept,” said Furtado. “At the end of that discussion it was recommended by Eureka County that the counties themselves work to help identify cooperators who have the capability to partner with the BLM in this effort of improving roads for fuel breaks, and monitoring and maintaining them on an annual basis. The decision I signed in 2017 for the Battle Mountain District allows 30,000 acres of treatment within the district and we’ve done 1,500 of those acres thus far ourselves. Last year we focused on the main highway corridors and we did some of that work already.
“One of the main objectives of this plan isn’t for BLM just to go out and do it ourselves, because again, we don’t have the resources to be able to do it,” reiterated Furtado. “Some year – and we’ve been fortunate here in Lander County – the right conditions are going to line up, and we’re going to have big wildfires. During that time, there will also be fires going on elsewhere in the country – potentially Reno, down in California – and they’re going to take all our resources. My vision for this is to be able to have a wildfire start here, have limited resources to respond, have the fire die down at night and hit one of these roads, and go out. And then we could all take credit for that and have ownership in improving our fire suppression response.”
The way the BLM would authorize participation in this program would be through a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the county and other participants specifying areas of road they would be responsible for, their roles and annual responsibilities, including the BLM writing a prescription depending on the area and maintenance. The MOU would allow them to provide funding from the conservation district and county, potentially getting federal funding.
“As it stands right now,” said Furtado, “this plan we are implementing is serving as a model for a national Environmental Impact Statement.”
The BLM is limited to where they can treat; they can’t go on to private land and direct. With limited staff and resources, they need help to maintain and implement the fuel breaks, a total of 30,000 acres.
“We’ve seen enough of Nevada burn in our lifetimes; we don’t need to see more,” said Uhlig.
Uhlig explained, “One partner can’t be responsible for everything. Getting as many people to the table as possible is what we need to do. We want to form partnerships with as many local, county, state and other agencies as we can.” Their vision is to have the fuel breaks in place across the district to allow them to have a pre-known spot in order to maintain defensible space against wildland fires.
Once criteria are met, certain types of treatment are allowed, including mowing, mastication, disking, herbicides, and seeding and biological methods.
“When we’re going out to a fire and it’s more intense than the resources we have and can handle, we have control lines in a spot where a tactical advantage can be gained by the firefighters on the ground,” Uhlig explained.
Commissioner Art Clark asked, “When you cut the trees, do you leave them there so people can come and get firewood?” Uhlig said it depends on the kind of treatment and location, but that is one way they want to dispose of fuels.
Uhlig said, “The goal of these partnerships is to create a safer environment for our wildland firefighters, whether it’s BLM, Forest Service or county VFDs. In my career, fires have gotten bigger every year and we need everyone at the table to create a successful outcome.”
Furtado said they will soon have a draft MOA ready to work on with the district attorney, and they will have a MOA with each cooperator. Once the BLM has names of those cooperators, they will look at their proposal, go out with them to the area, develop a prescription and identify the costs for that specific segment.
Furtado said, “I envision BLM and maybe NDOT or NDF – the folks who have the resources – to do the initial treatment, and then the cooperators would be responsible for annual maintenance, monitoring and reporting to BLM. There wouldn’t be just one MOU for the county, there would be a number for each individual cooperator.”
Asked by Clark if ranchers would be forced into a situation where they would have to comply if the county enters into an agreement with the BLM, Furtado said, “Compliance is not relevant to this project, it’s all voluntary.”
Lander County District Attorney Ted Herrera clarified, “It’s not a matter of ‘comply.’ If they’re on leased land, they have to comply. On their private land, they don’t have to comply unless they want to cooperate, and that’s what we’re talking about, bringing them in as cooperators.”
Uhlig illustrated by saying, “It’s more along the lines of, ‘I want to protect my property and the roadside nearby; I can’t currently treat BLM land,’ but with this agreement, this project, you could go out and treat BLM land next to your operation and interests.”
A motion was passed to direct the county manager to work on getting a cooperative agreement between Lander County and the BLM for the roadside fuel breaks projects.
For additional contact regarding roadside fuels in the Fuels Management Program, residents can reach out to the Battle Mountain District BLM at (775) 635-4000.