Do Bark Beetle Outbreaks Increase Wildfire Risks in the Central U.S. Rocky Mountains? Implications from Recent Research

Natural Areas Journal (2013, v33 n1 p59-65; doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3375/043.033.0107) / by Scott H. Black, et al.
http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.3375/043.033.0107

[Abstract] Appropriate response to recent, widespread bark beetle (Dendroctonus spp.) outbreaks in the western United States has been the subject of much debate in scientific and policy circles. Among the proposed responses have been landscape-level mechanical treatments to prevent the further spread of outbreaks and to reduce the fire risk that is believed to be associated with insect-killed trees. We review the literature on the efficacy of silvicutural practices to control outbreaks and on fire risk following bark beetle outbreaks in several forest types. While research is ongoing and important questions remain unresolved, to date most available evidence indicates that bark beetle outbreaks do not substantially increase the risk of active crown fire in lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) and spruce (Picea engelmannii)-fir (Abies spp.) forests under most conditions. Instead, active crown fires in these forest types are primarily contingent on dry conditions rather than variations in stand structure, such as those brought about by outbreaks. Preemptive thinning may reduce susceptibility to small outbreaks but is unlikely to reduce susceptibility to large, landscape-scale epidemics. Once beetle populations reach widespread epidemic levels, silvicultural strategies aimed at stopping them are not likely to reduce forest susceptibility to outbreaks. Furthermore, such silvicultural treatments could have substantial, unintended short— and long-term ecological costs associated with road access and an overall degradation of natural areas. [H/T: E&E News PM]

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