Cleared strip network for fire prevention (firebreaks)
Spain - Área cortafuegos
left: Firebreaks are classified in first, second and third order, together forming a system isolating separate areas by wide strips. This parcelling aims in controlling the spread of large forest fires. (Photo: Nina Lauterburg)
right: Firebreaks are often located along existing roads to guarantee the access for fire-fighting vehicles and to keep the environmental impact limited. (Photo: Nina Lauterburg)

The basic principle of a firebreak network is to split continuous forest areas (where a lot of fuel is built up) into smaller patches separated by vegetation-free strips in order to prevent large forest fires.

In the forest law 3/1993 the declaration of special areas to “Zonas de Actuación Urgente (ZAU)” (zone of urgent actions) through the regional government of Valencia is defined. Objectives are the protection against natural hazards and the promotion of forest restoration within this area. Ayora was declared to a ZAU in 1997 due to its high risk of fires. In the “Plan de Selvicultura Preventiva de Incendios en los Sistemas Forestales de la Comunidad Valenciana” which became operative in 1996 and whose main objective is the reduction of the fire risk, the ZAU is practically addressed for the first time in the establishment of firebreaks (áreas cortafuegos). Based on this plan, the firebreaks were established within a pilot project “Proyecto Piloto de Selvicultura Preventiva” between 1998 and 2002, carried out by the company VAERSA (public company of the Generalitat Valenciana).
A firebreak is a strategically located strip on which the vegetation cover has been partially or totally removed down to mineral soil with the aim of controlling the spread of large forest fires. The main purposes are 1) to interrupt the continuity of hazardous fuels across a landscape to decrease the area affected by fires, 2) to provide areas where fire fighters are protected and can work more efficiently, 3) to slow down a fire, to reduce the fire intensity and caused damages, and 4) to provide strips where fuel management is facilitated. The total surface protected by the firebreaks is 33’851 ha while the management measures are executed on 1944,81 ha. This technology is also applied in other countries, e.g. Portugal, South Carolina or South Africa.
The establishment and maintenance are labour-intensive and expensive. Firebreaks can range between a protected area of 2000-6000 ha (first order), 500-1500 ha (second order), and 100-300 ha (third order), together forming a system isolating separate areas by wide strips. This parcelling aims in limiting the burnt area to a maximum of 6000 ha. Each firebreak consists of a bare vegetation-free strip (banda decapado). The width of the bare area ranges between 6m (first order), 3m (second order) and 1.5m (third order). Existing vegetation-free areas (e.g. roads) are used to establish firebreaks to have less visual impact. If there is no road, trees and shrubs have to be cleared and chipped entirely using chainsaws and special tractors. On each side of the bare area there is a totally cleared strip (banda de desbroce total). The width depends on the climatic zone, the order and the hazard of fuel, therefore ranging between 28m (first order), 11m (second order) and 6m (third order). Almost all the existing vegetation is cleared, only some isolated mature trees are not cut if they do not contribute to the propagation of a fire. On both sides of these strips there are auxiliary strips (banda auxiliar) where selective clearing is applied until reaching a desired density. Sick trees are cleared with priority. Species of high ecologic value and low flammability level are not cleared, such as Juniperus phoenicea, Juniperus oxycedrus and Quercus ilex ssp. rotundifolia. The width of these elements can vary according to the prevalent conditions. A part of the wood generated by the clearings is used as fuelwood, the other part is chipped and distributed on the soil as mulch. Firebreaks are often located on mountain ridges and created with 45° to the dominant wind direction (west) to facilitate fire extinction. The maintenance of firebreaks is extremely important. Without clearing, fire-prone species will encroach which decreases the effectiveness of the firebreak. The maintenance is realized depending on the vegetation, usually in firebreaks of first order the maintenance is done every 2 years (“decapado” and “desbroce total”) or every 4 years (“banda auxiliar”) while firebreaks of second and third order are cleared every 4 years. In the here described project the maintenance was carried out in three phases (2001-2004, 2004-2008 and 2008-2012).
The region of Ayora is mountainous with a dry subhumid climate (~380 mm annual rainfall). The risk of fire incidence is at its highest from June to September when there are adverse conditions like drought, high temperatures and strong winds (mainly the winds coming from central Spain, called “poniente”). The population density is very low and there are only few job opportunities (e.g. marginal agriculture, grazing, hunting, beekeeping, artisanry, wind mill parc). Most of the inhabitants work in the nuclear power plant. Forest management could be a source for jobs.
Location: Spain, Valencia
Region: Region of Ayora (including the municipalities Requena, Cofrentes, Jalance, Jarafuel, Zarra, Ayora)
Technology area: 338.5 km2
Conservation measure: vegetative
Stage of intervention: prevention of land degradation
Origin: Developed externally / introduced through project, 10-50 years ago
Land use type:
Forests / woodlands: Natural
Forests / woodlands: Plantations, afforestations
Climate: subhumid, temperate
WOCAT database reference: T_SPA009en
Related approach: Plan of preventive silviculture (PSP): implementation of firebreak network within a forest intervention area (ZAU) (A_SPA002en)
Compiled by: Nina Lauterburg, Centre for Development and Environment (CDE)
Date: 2013-05-06
Contact person: Jaime Baeza, Fundación Centro de Estudios Ambientales del Mediterráneo (CEAM), Parque Tecnológico Paterna. C/ Charles Darwin 14, 46980 Valencia, Spain. E-Mail:


Land use problems:
- In Ayora, the prevalent dense shrublands (dominated by seeder species), which resulted from past agricultural land use (changes of the vegetation composition, e.g. removal of key species), land abandonment/rural depopulation and fire occurrence, contain a high fire risk because of both the high fuel loads and their continuity. Also dense forests (either afforestations or natural regeneration) show a high risk for fires. Through the modifications of the vegetation composition in the past (removal of more fire resistant resprouter species (mature forest), whereas fire-prone seeder species are now spreading), the resilience of the ecosystem to fires has decreased. Today a higher fire recurrence can be observed which could still be worsen by future climate change impacts, undermining more and more the ecosystem’s capacity to buffer such shocks. Before the implementation of firebreaks, it was almost impossible to stop a fire and it was much more dangerous for fire fighters. There was also no access for fire-fighting vehicles. (expert's point of view)

Land useClimateDegradationConservation measure
Land use Land useSubhumid
Plantations, afforestations
selective felling of (semi-) natural forests, plantation forestry
Biological degradation: detrimental effects of fires
Vegetative: Clearing of vegetation (eg fire breaks/reduced fuel)
Stage of interventionOriginLevel of technical knowledge
   Mitigation / Reduction
   Land users initiative: traditional (>50 years ago)
   Experiments / Research
   Externally introduced: 10-50 years ago
   Agricultural advisor
   Land user
Main causes of land degradation:
Direct causes - Human induced: deforestation / removal of natural vegetation (incl. forest fires)
Indirect causes: population pressure, poverty / wealth, labour availability
Main technical functions:
- control of fires
Secondary technical functions:
- reduction of dry material (fuel for wildfires)

Natural Environment
Average annual rainfall (mm)Altitude (m a.s.l.)    LandformSlope (%)
> 4000 mm
3000-4000 mm
2000-3000 mm
1500-2000 mm
1000-1500 mm
750-1000 mm
500-750 mm
250-500 mm
< 250 mm

> 4000   

    plateau / plains
    mountain slopes
    hill slopes
    valley floors

very steep

Soil depth (cm)


Soil texture: fine / heavy (clay)
Soil fertility: medium
Topsoil organic matter: low (<1%)
Soil drainage/infiltration: medium
Soil water storage capacity: high
Ground water table: 5 - 50 m
Availability of surface water: poor / none
Water quality: good drinking water
Biodiversity: medium
Tolerant of climatic extremes: temperature increase, seasonal rainfall decrease, heavy rainfall events (intensities and amount), floods
Sensitive to climatic extremes: seasonal rainfall increase, wind storms / dust storms, droughts / dry spells
If sensitive, what modifications were made / are possible: The technology was not modified. The firebreaks are quite resistant against climate change or weather extremes. Only if there will be more rainfall the vegetation might grow faster and the maintenance costs could increase. Furthermore, if there are heavy windstorms the effectiveness of firebreaks is undermined because strong winds result in faster spreading fires.

Human Environment
Forests / woodlands per household (ha)

Land user: employee (company, government), common / average land users, mainly men
Population density: < 10 persons/km2
Annual population growth: negative
Land ownership: state, individual, titled
Land use rights: individual, open access but organised (e.g. wood, hunting)
(There is some public land, controlled by the state. But there is also some private land. The access to the public land is open but organized. Permission is needed from the government to cut trees, to build a house or to hunt. There are some private hunting areas for which the hunting association has to pay a fee.)
Market orientation: mixed (subsistence and commercial)
Purpose of forest / woodland use: timber, other forest products / uses (honey, medical, etc.), recreation / tourism

blob_id=3832Technical drawing

Firebreaks can range between a protected area of 2000-6000 ha (first order), 500-1500 ha (second order), and 100-300 ha (third order), together forming a system isolating separate areas by wide strips. This parcelling aims in limiting the burnt area to a maximum of 6000 ha. Each firebreak consists of a bare strip (banda decapado) ranging between 6m (first order), 3m (second order) and 1.5m (third order). On both sides of the bare area there is a totally cleared strip (banda de desbroce total) whose width ranges between 28m (first order), 11m (second order) and 6m (third order). On both sides of these strips there are auxiliary strips (banda auxiliar) where selective clearing is applied. The width of these elements can vary according to the prevalent conditions. (Nina Lauterburg)

Implementation activities, inputs and costs
Establishment activitiesEstablishment inputs and costs per ha
- Project planning and design of firebreak system
- Adaption of the agricultural tractors with forest management machinery (wheels, protection of the machine against stones, clearing machinery with chains)
- Cutting and chipping (in-situ) of trees and shrubs (execution of firebreak network)
- Transport of wood (fuel wood)
InputsCosts (US$)% met by land user
Labour 1095.00 0%
  - machine use 675.00 0%
TOTAL 1770.00 0.00%

Maintenance/recurrent activitiesMaintenance/recurrent inputs and costs per ha per year
- Clearing of firebreaks of first order (every 2 years)
- Clearing of firebreaks of second and third order (every 4 years)
InputsCosts (US$)% met by land user
  - machine use 557.00 0%
TOTAL 557.00 0.00%

The costs of the establishment of firebreaks can be affected by numerous factors, such as slope (if the slope is steep, the work is much more difficult and takes more time, because machines cannot be used on steep slopes), vegetation density (it takes more time to clear a dense area), stone content of the soil (if there are many stones the work is much more difficult for the machines and more dangerous for the workers), availability of a road (where a firebreak can be established, costs can be saved). Important to note is that maintenance costs could increase with an increase in rainfall because the vegetation will grow faster (otherwise firebreaks are quite resistant against climate change or weather extremes). Furthermore, modifying a normal tractor for forest management can be extremely expensive.
The total costs of the firebreaks (establishment and maintenance) were calculated for the application of the technology on one hectare, based on the indications given in the official project documents of the regional government (Generalitat Valenciana) and information from different stakeholders (e.g. forest agent, university staff, employee of VAERSA). The whole project costs were around 3 Mio Euro for the establishment and around 1.5 Mio Euro for the maintenance phase. The maintenance costs refer to the third maintenance phase taking place from 2008 to 2012. The costs of the execution of the project were 1312 Euro/ha (1770 Dollar) and the costs of the maintenance were 82.03 Euro/ha (110 Dollar, after 2 years) and 331.37 Euro/ha (446 Dollar, after 4 years). The currency rate (Euro-Dollar) was calculated on November 16th, 2013.

Impacts of the Technology
Production and socio-economic benefitsProduction and socio-economic disadvantages
   increased wood production
   increased fodder production
   increased fodder quality
   increased animal production
   high establishment and maintenance costs
   loss of land
   job uncertainty
Socio-cultural benefitsSocio-cultural disadvantages
   improved conservation / erosion knowledge
   improved situation of disadvantaged groups
   Increase of the security for fire fighters
   conflict mitigation
   improved food security / self sufficiency
   loss of recreational opportunities
   socio cultural conflicts
   increased health problems
Ecological benefitsEcological disadvantages
   reduced hazard towards adverse events
   reduced fire risk
   reduced emission of carbon and greenhouse gases
   increased surface water runoff
   decreased soil cover
   decreased soil organic matter
   increased soil erosion locally
   increased habitat fragmentation
Off-site benefitsOff-site disadvantages
   reduced risk of wildfires
   reduced downstream flooding
   reduced downstream siltation
   reduced damage on neighbours fields
   reduced damage on public / private infrastructure
Contribution to human well-being / livelihoods
   Through the establishment and the maintenance of firebreaks it is easier to control fires and protect people. Furthermore it created jobs for the unemployed. But it seems that in general forest management is not something people want to do, they work in this sector only if there are no other job opportunities. Forest management means a hard job and this kind of work is not well-respected in society

Benefits /costs according to land user
Benefits compared with costsshort-term:long-term:
Establishmentvery positivevery positive
Maintenance / recurrentvery positivevery positive
Both the short-term and the long-term benefits are very positive assuming that maintenance is done. Together with the creation of jobs, directly after establishing the firebreaks there is firewood and timber available and a reduced risk of wildfires. But it should also be considered that the establishment costs are high. If maintenance is not done the long-term returns will be very negative because an increase in the risk of fire will occur again (without management, there will also be no firewood, no timber and no jobs). The maintenance costs increase the longer you wait because the vegetation will grow again densely.

Acceptance / adoption:

There is little trend towards (growing) spontaneous adoption of the technology. The existing firebreak network system was established within the pilot project. Other firebreaks were created afterwards by the regional government of Valencia or already existed before. Maybe the network is enlarged in some areas from time to time. This technology is also applied in other countries/regions, amongst others in Portugal, South Carolina and South Africa.

Concluding statements

Strengths and how to sustain/improveWeaknesses and how to overcome
There is a reduction of fuel load within the firebreaks and therefore they contribute to fire prevention. The maintenance of firebreaks is crucial
A firebreak does not stop a fire but facilitates the access for fire fighters (and vehicles) and guarantees a higher security for people, thus increasing the possibility to control/slow down a fire. By arranging the territory in different parcels (firebreaks of first, second and third order) the spread of large forest fires is less probable The maintenance of firebreaks is crucial. Furthermore, there must be a good coordination and organisation within the fire fighter staff in case of an emergency.
There are both social and economic benefits for local people. The establishment and the maintenance of firebreaks provide jobs for rural people which allows them to increase their livelihood conditions. A part of the extracted wood is used for biomass, fertilizers, pellets, or firewood. Furthermore there would be improved conditions for grazing. More investment in forest management is required to sustain these benefits. Furthermore, many local stakeholders mentioned the importance of reactivating traditional activities (such as grazing, agriculture, wood gathering) and that the villagers should get economic compensation to maintain the forest in a good state.
Vegetation removal produces fresh vegetation growth, therefore more diverse and nutritious fodder is available for animals (game and livestock) in the cleared areas. Game/wildlife and livestock are better because there is an increase in fodder quantity and quality. The maintenance of firebreaks is crucial.
Due to the high stone content of the soil, and due to mulching through in-situ brush-chipping of the cleared material, the firebreaks are not that prone to erosion as in other regions/countries (e.g. Portugal).
Improvement and maintenance of the forest paths and streets to establish firebreaks and to guarantee access for fire fighter vehicles but also for recreational activities (rural tourism). Establishment and maintenance of the firebreaks can improve the forest track network.
Fewer fires result in a decrease of the destroyed area, less money will have to be invested in restoration or fire extinction. Furthermore, farmers, hunters and honey producers will experience fewer losses. The maintenance of firebreaks is crucial.
In Jarafuel where most of the land is public retired people receive the firewood gained by forest clearings for free. They can use the wood for cooking and heating and save a lot of money. People from the region (outside of Jarafuel) like this idea that villagers benefit from what is removed from the forest. More mechanisms like this should be developed so that people recognize that they also benefit from forest management, which in turn would ensure a sustainable forest management.
There are also off-site benefits. Fewer fires will result in a reduction of downstream flooding, downstream siltation and damage on neighbours’ fields. When fire removes less vegetation the soil is less vulnerable to erosion The maintenance of firebreaks is crucial.
Firebreaks are a strong disturbance of the natural environment. People often criticise the negative aesthetic/visual impact which results in a decline of the recreational value. This problem is difficult to overcome, but the technology helps to prevent an even bigger disturbance of the forest caused by a fire. Even though criticising the firebreaks due to its visual impact people know about the importance of this measure and are also concerned with the devastating effects of a forest fire. There is always the question of what is better: to establish firebreaks and disturb nature, or to experience a large fire.
The establishment and the maintenance activities are expensive and labour-intensive. Without management the firebreaks are not effective anymore. It would be necessary to extract biomass from the forest to decrease the continuity of the trees and shrubs. In case of a lack of management the risk of fires increases. Management is crucial. It should be noted that prevention measures are often less expensive than rehabilitation activities after a fire. More investment in forest management and fire prevention is required. Managing the forest would not only decrease the risk of fire but also generate benefits (e.g. wood, biomass). Furthermore, jobs would be generated which is especially important during the current economy crisis in Spain. There are some good practices found in other regions to cover the maintenance costs: In Jarafuel (next to Ayora) a part of the rent paid by the wind mill company to the state is reinvested in forest management. Or in Andalucia, the government launched a project to invest subventions in maintenance of firebreaks through grazing and this was very successful. This could be a good alternative to expensive management measures. It was also mentioned by many stakeholders that traditional activities (such as grazing, agriculture, wood gathering) should be reactivated and that the villagers should get economic compensation to maintain the forest in a good state.
Firebreaks are not that efficient because after clearing, the first plants which grow are Ulex parviflorus and Cistus albidus which are fire-prone species. Furthermore, if you cut them each 4 or 5 years there will only be grassland which is not natural in Mediterranean region. A fire could be caused more easily due to the high amount of thin and dead material. CEAM suggests to plant more fire-resistant species (late successional stages) within some spots in the firebreaks to increase the resilience of the ecosystem. Green living plants have a higher humidity content which slows down a fire (oxygen is consumed). The issue is not to cover the whole firebreaks with plants but to establish some green spots. By planting late-successional species densely you don’t allow seeders to grow. This measure could also decrease management costs. People keep in their minds the idea of having to clear all the vegetation in order to not have fires or to stop them, but it is not really the most sustainable one. The idea of green firebreaks is already common in some other countries but you need to ensure water availability for irrigation.
In some areas, the implementation of firebreaks can occupy productive land which means a loss of land The main objective of this technology is to provide protection from forest fires instead of creating productive land.
The work is dangerous and there is a high risk to harm oneself when clearing and chipping the vegetation. It is also a physical stress due to the exhausting work
When there is a strong and dry wind from the inland (poniente) the smaller firebreaks are useless because the fire just passes over. It should also be noted that without human intervention the firebreaks do not stop a fire Establish big firebreaks and ensure maintenance.

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