The purpose of firebreaks is to prevent forest fires from spreading before they damage the ecosystem, cropland or personal property. To construct a firebreak, a band of vegetation between 4 and 6 m wide is dug out and vegetation and dirt are removed until the mineral soil is reached. Firebreaks generally begin and end in places where fire cannot reach due to a lack of combustible matter. The extracted vegetation is disposed of on the side of the lane opposite that from which a fire could be expected to come.
Firebreaks are useful in places with a high incidence or risk of forest fires due to prolonged seasonal drought and the consequent accumulation of inflammable vegetation. The risk of fires increases with high temperatures, low relative humidity, wind and the presence of dry combustible matter in the immediate surroundings.
Threats and Impacts it Addresses
Firebreaks reduce the impact of the higher incidence of forest fires due to rising global temperatures and the seasonal precipitation deficit. Protecting forests helps maintain their water- and climate-regulation services, which decreases the effect of extreme heat and intense rainfall.
- Clear areas between 4 and 6 m wide. The higher the vegetation and the stronger the predominant winds, the wider the strip must be.
- Firebreaks begin and end in spots that a fire cannot reach (boulders, sandpits, rivers or roads). These secure spaces are known as "anchor points".
- The firebreak must follow as straight of a line as possible, and winding paths should be avoided.
- It is important to construct alternate roads or walkways to be used as escape routes.
- Maintenance must be carried out at least once a year.
Inputs and Costs
The cost of constructing a 1000 m by 6 m firebreak, equivalent to the perimeter of an area no larger than 6.25 ha, is given below. The main inputs are hand tools, digging costs and personal safety equipment. Two days of training are considered.
|Firebreak 1000 m long (6 ha)||US$|
|* Total plus fire protection and firefighting equipment||3585|
Economic and Ecosystemic Benefits
According to partial records, in Colombia 14,492 forest fire events were reported between for 1986 and 2002, affecting 400,788 ha, more than 135,000 of which are in the central Andean Altiplano (MINAM, 2002). Highland fires have a greater impact because they affect areas near watershed headwaters. Firebreaks protect material, agricultural and ecosystemic resources; hence their benefit is related to their effectiveness at providing protection. For example, a 400 m firebreak would be sufficient to protect 1 ha of forest. The ecosystemic and biodiversity services of tropical forests have been valued at roughly US$ 6120/ha per year (TEEB, 2009).
It is difficult to construct firebreaks in urban areas, because of the limited available space, as well as in areas subject to constant flooding, such as swamps. Technical assistance is needed to determine the width of the firebreak based on the vegetation height and wind speed. Improperly constructed firebreaks may cause erosion.
Firebreaks and auxiliary equipment require maintenance in order to be effective. It is important not to wait for an eminent danger before beginning to repair the equipment or to remove vegetation accumulated along the firebreak. Maintenance must be performed at least once a year, at the beginning of the dry season.
A second firebreak and high-pressure water systems should be considered for places at high risk of fire. Second firebreaks may also be used as observation routes and interpretative trails.
Units to Monitor Project Progress: Length of firebreaks constructed (m).
Unites to Monitor Measure's Impact: Area protected with firebreaks (ha).
- Ministerio de Ambiente, Vivienda y Desarrollo Territorial de Colombia (2002). Plan nacional de prevención, control de incendios forestales y restauración de áreas afectadas. Comisión Nacional Asesora para la Prevención y Mitigación de Incendios Forestales.
- The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (2009). TEEB Climate Issues Update (Sept.) Available at: http://www.teebweb.org.