Ask the Expert: Fuel Break Establishment

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The amount of acreage impacted by wildfires in a single year reached an all-time high in 2020. As heat, low humidity and high winds create volatile conditions for wildfires to spread, we connected with Lorelei Phillips of Pacific Power and Beau Miller of Corteva Agriscience to discuss how fuel break establishment can enhance wildfire mitigation programs and increase safety for utility companies, land entities and the general public.

As a utility forester with Pacific Power, Phillips uses her 26 years of experience to coordinate utility vegetation management programs through Northern California and southern Oregon. Comparably, Miller leverages nearly three decades of experience to help utility vegetation managers ensure safe and reliable electric service in the western United States. The professional advice and insights shared by these two experts can help vegetation management teams successfully establish fuel breaks that not only protect utility infrastructure but also adjacent land and nearby communities.

Where should fuel breaks be established?

Lorelei Phillips (LP): Tall, incompatible plant species, as well as flammable low-growing vegetation, can be removed to establish fuel breaks in both distribution and transmission corridors. Utilities can work with other agencies to clear vegetation under lines along roadsides to eliminate hazards that can block escape routes or access for first responders.

Beau Miller (BM): Larger breaks in landscapes are key to enhancing fuel break performance. That’s why strategic locations like ridge tops or utility rights-of-way are great locations for fuel break establishment, as they have the ability to connect land owned by different entities or communities.

What are some of the most significant challenges utility vegetation managers face in their work to prevent or mitigate wildfire risk?

LP: The availability of qualified workers can make it difficult to fulfill crew deployment needs in remote areas. Through positive working relationships with contractors, qualified workers can be brought in from other utilities or areas if resources are available. Travel crews also help fill the demands during high workload periods. The time required to remove trees doesn’t always align with early shutdown requirements for fire season mandates by state or federal agencies either.

What role does fuel break establishment play in wildfire mitigation?

BM: Wildfires can be ignited and spread in numerous ways. Although fuel breaks may not always prevent these catastrophic events from occurring, they provide a safer area for firefighters to combat the flames and buy critical time that can save lives and valuable resources.

What strategies, control methods or products do you recommend using for fuel break establishment?

LP: Initial mowing is recommended for overgrown rights-of-way. Once that vegetation returns, selective herbicides can be used to eliminate incompatible species and allow desirable grasses and native plants to grow, which can reduce the threat of wildfire. I also recommend working with other agencies, land entities or timber companies to support fuel break expansion by removing trees on the edge of right-of-way corridors.

For example, when private companies or federal agencies are conducting logging activities near right-of-way corridors, utilities can assist with tree removals requiring line-clearance certified workers. As opposed to leaving brush that can increase fuel loads, track chippers can be used to broadcast chips at low levels when removing trees manually.

BM: Mechanical, biological and chemical control methods can be used to establish and maintain fuel breaks. It’s crucial that vegetation managers first understand which species they’re trying to control. From there, they can build a treatment plan that will do the best job for their planned budget. Chemical control methods, such as selective herbicide applications, are a great way for vegetation management teams to prevent the regrowth of incompatible stems, which reduces long-term maintenance costs and enhances fuel break performance.

Aside from utility companies, are there other entities that benefit from fuel break establishment?

LP: While federal agencies can protect their land and resources by completing fuel-reduction projects that accompany timber harvest plans, cities and state agencies can establish fuel breaks along roads to improve access both into and out of communities during wildfires and related emergencies. State and national parks can also remove dead and hazard trees to eliminate highly flammable vegetation near campgrounds and other common areas.

BM: Definitely. Fuel breaks can help timber companies protect their harvest, while cities, communities, county agencies and state departments of transportation can improve safety and evacuation route accessibility whenever wildfires occur.

What other strategies can utility vegetation managers use to reduce the risk of wildfire?

LP: Tree growth regulators can be used to slow the development of fast-growing trees that may come into contact with energized conductors. I’d also recommend documenting trees that fail to maintain compliance between work cycles. Removing overhanging limbs on species that have higher limb-failure rates is also good practice.

BM: High-risk fire areas are often riddled with ladder fuels. Supplementing mechanical and biological control methods with selective herbicide applications is a great way to prevent the establishment and growth of ladder fuels in and around these areas.

What can vegetation management teams do to effectively communicate with landowners or land entities that are skeptical of chemical control methods?

LP: Being well-versed on herbicides and understanding product labels is extremely important when it comes to effectively communicating with landowners about how herbicides work. Education is key. Explaining how herbicides can be used throughout rights-of-way to establish fuel breaks, reduce maintenance costs, enhance biodiversity and improve pollinator habitat are all positive benefits worth sharing.

BM: Helping landowners, land entities and the public understand the purpose of your work and the benefits it provides is a simple way to increase compliance and reduce complaints. At Corteva, we actually developed the Notify Your Neighbor digital guide to improve landowner communications regarding vegetation management along utility rights-of-way. It’s filled with techniques and key messages that can enhance notification programs for energy companies and contracted employees alike.  

Whether your wildfire mitigation program is in full swing or just getting started, Corteva Agriscience has helpful resources that can enhance your team’s productivity, cost-efficiency and interactions with the public. Learn more about effective communication strategies through the Notify Your Neighbor digital resource or access more information about utility strategies for wildfire mitigation by clicking here.


Expert Bios

Lorelei Phillips, Utility Forester | Pacific Power

Lorelei Phillips has worked as a utility forester with Pacific Power for the past 14 years. In addition to being credentialed as a certified arborist and utility specialist arborist, she has earned her tree risk assessment qualification and holds an Oregon public applicator license. She uses 26 years of industry experience to coordinate vegetation management work that helps to ensure safe and reliable electric service throughout Northern California and southern Oregon.

Beau Miller, Vegetation Management Specialist | Corteva Agriscience

Beau Miller is a vegetation management specialist with Corteva Agriscience. He uses more than 27 years of experience in vegetation management to provide technical support, product recommendations and industry best practices to vegetation management customers throughout Hawaii, Nevada and Northern California.


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