Scientists sorting out beetle-fire relationship

Scientists sorting out beetle-fire relationship

01 July 2012

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USA -ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Inside university laboratories and government research facilities across the country, scientists are playing with dozens of variables — mixing and matching and rearranging — to gain a better understanding of what makes wildfire go.

They’re busy building computer models as firefighters toil on steep mountainsides to put out more than a dozen new blazes in what has already become a vicious summer of destruction.

Colorado is having its worst fire season in a decade, while New Mexico is recovering from two record fires — one that charred more than 465 square miles and another that destroyed more than 240 homes.

The experts all agree: The dry conditions and strong winds are driving this year’s super fires.

So what happens when researchers add to their formulas the devastation caused during the last 15 years by an epidemic of hungry bark beetles? The tiny insects have turned more than 40 million acres of the nation’s forests into an unsightly patchwork of red and gray death.

“We’ve always had bark beetle infestations, but we’ve never had anything that’s been so widespread and spread so quickly,” said Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service. “The only place it’s really starting to slow down is just where we’re starting to run out of trees.”

From Colorado’s resort towns of Vail and Aspen to mountain communities in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, local leaders are worried about fires burning hotter and faster due to the beetle kill.

Some of this year’s fires have already burned through areas affected by the native insects, but fire behavior analysts and researchers say the result isn’t always a hotter, more severe fire. Sometimes it is.

With the ingredients of topography, fuels and weather always changing, the beetle effect comes partly down to timing. Then there’s the species of beetle (there are 15 in the West), the type of trees being attacked and the intensity and rate of tree mortality.

“It just isn’t anything that’s straight forward,” Tidwell said.

Peter Fule, a forestry professor at Northern Arizona University, ticked off a list of factors. “This is one of the big problems with trying to assess fuel hazards and how dangerous the potential really is for fire,” he said.

In some circles, the thought is that fire danger is highest when beetle-killed trees still have their red needles. These fine fuels add to the probability of crown fires, which are the most difficult to suppress.

A study released last year by U.S. Forest Service ecologist Matt Jolly showed that the needles of beetle-killed trees contain 10 times less moisture and a different chemical makeup than healthy trees. That means the red needles can ignite three times faster and burn more intensely than healthy trees.

Yet, another study done by ecologists at the University of Wisconsin found that a beetle-damaged stand of trees will probably not burn any more intensely than a green stand under intermediate weather conditions. Their modeling showed insects and fire are linked, but that one doesn’t cause the other.

The standing gray skeletons that are left a few years after a beetle infestation are less of a problem. But once they fall, they add to the fuels on the forest floor, again becoming a concern for land managers and firefighters.

Some researchers say the fallen trees actually decompose faster, lessening the length of time the debris can influence fire behavior.

Annual aerial surveys done by the U.S. Forest Service show the number of new acres being attacked by beetles has actually decreased overall from a peak of 8.8 million in 2009 to 3.8 million last year. However, there are pockets in some parts of the West where beetle infestations continue to accelerate.

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