The infestation of tree-killing bugs sweeping through millions of acres of forests in the West might help prevent wildfires rather than fuel them as feared, according to a new study.
“We are suggesting that the supposed fire risk is probably overblown,” said Bill Romme, professor of fire ecology at Colorado State and the lead researcher. “Its possible the insects are doing the forest thinning that we would never be able to afford.”
State and federal land managers have become more alarmed about swaths of dead trees turning into fuel for wildfires as the beetles have fanned out through Western forests. Beetles have destroyed more than 7 million trees in Colorado over the past 10 years, said Joe Duda, forest management division supervisor for the State Forest Service.
The new study cautions that removing trees wont stop the spread of the beetles. Dead or dying trees dont mean the forest is unhealthy but “may instead reflect a natural process of forest renewal,” according to the study. Similar outbreaks have occurred in the past.
The study notes, though, that infestations at the current altitudes of 9,000 feet and higher are unprecedented and may be the result of warmer weather.
Wayne Shepperd is a silviculturist, an expert in the care and development of forests, with the Forest Services Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins. He said he disagrees with the reports thrust, calling it “selective science.”
In October, Forest Service scientists said a review of studies showed there was no large amount of evidence suggesting that insect outbreaks significantly increase wildfire risk. They concluded, though, that large areas of recently killed trees that still have needles can result in a more intense, quickly spreadingfire.