Scientists test fire in beetle-kill trees

 Scientists test fire in beetle-kill trees

23 April 2009

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USA — It took just a few seconds for firefighter Zach Becker to ignite a blaze that completely consumed a red-needled, dead lodgepole pine tree in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The tall tree glowed orange and gave off brief and intense heat. Then as quickly as it started, the flames burned out, leaving only smoking black tree limbs.

“That’s the kind of ignition that you would hope to do,” observed Bill Rommy, a professor of fire ecology at CSU, who stood among a few dozen people watching the blaze.

Park fire officials and Colorado State University scientists and students spent part of Wednesday in the park igniting lodgepoles dead or dying from bark beetles as part of a research project to study how beetle-killed trees burn.

The trees are in a 50-acre test area in Horseshoe Park, which shows early signs of the impending pine beetle epidemic in the region.

Many believe a pine beetle epidemic that killed most mature lodgepoles on the Western Slope of the state’s central mountains will do the same to pine stands in and around Rocky Mountain National Park in the next few years.

Park officials would like to make the best out of what looks like a bad situation on the horizon. If large swaths of pines are going to die, they want to know if burning those stands in the winter could replace costly clear cuts to create firebreaks.

Firebreaks are planned next to structures and private land to create a defensible space to fight and hopefully stop a wildfire heading that direction, park fire management officer Mike Lewelling said.

Burning these areas could be much cheaper than cutting down trees to create firebreaks on the land, he said.

The park could also plan the winter work on prescribed burn areas as a pretreatment. Firefighters would then go in after the snow melts and burn the rest, though the removal of standing trees would make the practice much safer.

“It’s never really been studied before,” Lewelling said. “Hopefully, based on what we learn, we can expand it to other areas of the park.”
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CSU’s Rommy and assistant wildland fire science professor Monique Rocca caught wind of the test burn last year and partnered on the project.

The scientists have embarked on a long-term study on the affects of pine beetle epidemic and how it will change the forest in decades to come. On Wednesday, they were interested in learning how flammable trees are in different phases of the infestation and if fire will kill beetle larva.

They also want to know if serotinous cones, which only open with fire’s heat, will drop seeds in the winter snow to reforest the burned areas. Typically, the seeds would drop on fertile, burned ground.

Rommy made some preliminary conclusions after watching a few torched trees.

It’s clear that a dead tree with all its needles intact, but red remains extremely flammable in the winter, he said.

But trees that have lost 50 percent of their needles or have been infested but still have green needles are not very flammable in the winter. It took several tries from Becker to ignite these trees, and they did not sustain a blaze without his help.

“These trees, even in the summertime, could be less flammable when they lose their needles,” Rommy said.

Rommy and Rocca wrapped up their work at the test burning sites Wednesday, and they’ll return one more time in the summer.

Park officials planned to return later this week to continue burning.

Lewelling said they also could perform more burn experiments later this year on tree stands on the west side of the park.

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