Bark Beetles and Fire: Two Forces of Nature Transforming Western Forests

The February 2012 edition of Fire Science Digest from the Joint Fire Science Program included this very interesting article titled, “Bark Beetles and Fire: Two Forces of Nature Transforming Western Forests.”  Here’s the intro to the article [emphasis added]:

Bark beetles are chewing a wide swath through forests across North America. Over the past few years, infestations have become epidemic in lodgepole and spruce-fir forests of the Intermountain West. The resulting extensive acreages of dead trees are alarming the public and raising concern about risk of severe fire. Researchers supported by the Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP) are examining the complicated relationship between bark beetles and wildfire, the two most influential natural disturbance agents in these forests. Are the beetles setting the stage for larger, more severe wildfires? And are fires bringing on beetle epidemics? Contrary to popular opinion, the answer to both questions seems to be “no.”

21 thoughts on “Bark Beetles and Fire: Two Forces of Nature Transforming Western Forests”

  1. That paper is quite narrow in scope, only applicable to pure lodgepole stands. They barely even mention ponderosa pines, which are at lower and drier elevations than lodgepoles. What is fairly common in ponderosa pine is that when wildfires burn, even those that stay on the ground, the cambium layers are subjected to high heat, essentially killing an otherwise perfectly green and healthy tree. This results in ponderosas taking a long time to die, making them into longterm “brood trees”, supplying clouds of bark beetles, ready to feast on the rest of the stand. We’ve seen this mechanism in action in ponderosa forests for many years. So, not only do fires follow bark beetles, bark beetles also follow fires, making for a vicious circle of death and fiery destruction, resulting in a landscape devoid of essential drought-resistant pines which harbor endangered species.

    The paper also wrongly says that “The dead trees become hosts not only to the beetles, which colonize them to feed and reproduce…”. Bark beetles do not attack dead trees, and once the cambium is dead, the tree is no longer “habitat”. Applying this paper to all western forests is just wrong… dangerously wrong. We have an opportunity to reduce the soils damages from high-intensity fires burning in the fuels accumulations at ground level. Indeed, the hydrophobicity, the loss of soil organic matter and nutrient losses make such fires much more damaging but, those fire guys don’t want to talk about such “esoterica”.

  2. We have a bark beetle epidemic effecting the un-burnt lodgepole stands adjacent to areas burnt in the massive 2007 fires in west central Idaho. Coincidence, maybe….but I know where I’m doing my fuels reduction project (cutting my firewood) this coming summer.

  3. Larry says “We have an opportunity to reduce the soils damages from high-intensity fires burning in the fuels accumulations at ground level. Indeed, the hydrophobicity, the loss of soil organic matter and nutrient losses make such fires much more damaging …”

    Soil damage and hydrophobicity from wildfire are overstated.
    1. These effects are part of the natural disturbance regime. Fish, wildlife, plants, and trees all evolved with it. Value judgments must consider this.
    2 When soil “damage” happens it typically occurs in patches, usually only a small part of the landscape.
    3. Soil damage from fire must be weighed against soil damage from logging intended to address fire, including: roads, landings, burn piles, and heavy machinery, weeds, (and increased fire intensity when things go wrong such as wildfire that occurs before activity fuels are treated) etc.

    • Most of my career has been spent doing salvage logging projects (due to a lack of proper stewardship), and I have seen major erosion events on each and every project. None of them were caused by logging. The push for including floods as “natural and beneficial” won’t “hold water”. Today’s fires cause a lot more damage, due to the extreme fuels build-ups, especially close to the ground. The Biscuit, the Bitterroot fires, the McNally Fire, the Rabbit Creek Fire, and the SoCal fires are just some of the incidents that have caused catastrophic erosion I have seen personally.

      Soil impacts from thinning projects are MUCH less than, say, a landslide that brings down 150,000 cubic yards of landslide, damming up the Boise River and washing out roads. Damage from thinning projects are mitigated and minimized, healing over quite rapidly. Wildfires burn on all lands, including steep, highly erodible terrain, where thinning projects stay on gentler ground, staying out of riparian areas, and reducing fuels that feed firestorms.

      Obviously, you don’t seem to know about modern fuels treatments, Tree. Whole-tree yarding eliminates the limbs and tops, resulting in a significant reduction of fuels, readying that land for a regular program of safe prescribed fires.

      If these fires guys can’t understand the bark beetle’s life cycle, the paper they offer has limited value.

  4. Well, at least the story mentioned the work of Matt Jolly and Dana Hicks. I don’t want to waste my day analizing it, but wasn’t their research and observations based on “real life” wildfires in the “red needle” phase while the other guys were based on “fuel models.” Did I read that right?

    I don’t care what happened in Yellowstone 20 years ago. As a bit of an aside to that, Targhee National Forest had a MPB epidemic that was much worse than Yellowstone (lower elev.).It was heavily roaded and heavily salvaged. It stands to reason that it had the same “fire weather” that Yellowstone did-and yet NONE of it burned. The Yellowstone fires tried to burn into it, but were stopped by the regenerated clearcuts as the fine research work by Phillip Omi demonstrated (have these guys even read Omi’s work on the North Fork fire). It’s too late now, but it does make thoughtfull people wonder “how many lightning fires were ignited in Targhee VS Yellowstone and how many of these “spot” fires were snuffed out by 10AM in Targhee that would have turned into a half million acre North Fork Fire if Targhee would have been a part of Yellowstone”.

    As far as whether “salvage logging” can affect fire intensity..I think Omi’s work in Targhee discredits any claim logging doesn’t reduce hazard and they didn’t even mention the work of Mark Finney in designing fuels treatments on 20% of the landscape to reduce severity. And of course, my own “clearcuts don’t burn” stuff is photo proof that shows “fuels treatments” in MPB killed forests does work. But then I guess if it hasn’t been published in academia, then it has never happened.

    And once again, it seems the focus here has been on the “red needle” phase, with a tiny bit of focus on the “deadfall” period. All these kind of studies seem to “skip” the deadfall period.

    I’ll go with what Matt Jolly, Phillip Omi,Mark Finney, and Dana Hicks say.

    • The red-needle phase is really a non-issue. The way it SHOULD be worded is: Wildfires do not burn any more intense in dead lodgepole forests than in the extremely flammable green lodgepole forests. Allowing the expansion of lodgepole forests, through letting mixed conifer forests, with a lodgepole understory burn, isn’t a good idea. That process insures bigger future fires, and locks in lodgepole dominance of landscapes. American Indians knew enough about forests to know that lodgepoles were undesirable trees close to where they live. They were quite persistant in keeping the lodgepoles at bay.

      • OK so I haven’t read the article, but won’t fires burn more intensely close to the ground in stands where dead trees have fallen down and are jackstrawed adjacent to the soil (depending on the initial density of trees), compared to standing green trees?

          • Additionally, the fire folks don’t like to address the issues of re-burn, which often results in more actual damage than a fire burning in green lodgepole. The damages totaled up for fires burning in green trees often doesn’t include the probability of a re-burn. In dry forests, the remaining fuels from a fire just sit there, until the next inevitable fire incinerates everything in its path. Even fire-adapted species have their limits of fire survival. Additionally, the soils damages cause the land to not be able to support what was previously there, for decades, or even a century. Indeed, you can still see the barren slopes that used to have old growth, within some historical fire sites. Rarely do you see wildfires that burn at lower intensities, these days. It is all about the fuels.

  5. This is kinda unrelated, but if you want to see “every silviculture tool” thrown at the MPB and the resulting fear of wildfire, then you only have to look at the “private” lands in Colorado. And I mean the subdivisions from Grand Lake, Winterpark, to the Breckenridge-Frisco corridor. You can see everything from sanitation, to clearcut with reserve, to overstory removal, to commercial thin, to spraying an oil tanker load of pestiside (It’s interesting to see the one acre islands of mature trees in a subdivision where one neighbor sprayed for several years and the others thought it was too expensive).

    When you look out over these towns you see a lot of “green” surrounded by red and gray. All the red and gray have been removed from the homes and still exists on the USFS. Instead of a raw clearcut, the subdivisions were much greener than I expected. That is through a combination of a lot of “small” trees(spruce) in the understory and the fact that “thinning and sanitizing” did work at keeping many of the mature trees alive. Whether the wind blows them down we’ll see.

    I wonder how many “million board foot” was salvage logged around homes. I will also bet that all these rich enviros are now pretty happy that the “last remaining sawmill in Colorado” was still around to take the logs. If that mill wasn’t there, where would all that wood have gone?
    I’m sure nobody will thank the mill, but I’m sure they’re very thankfull it was there and have a new found and up close and personal appreciation for the timber industry.

  6. derek says in #8,

    I will also bet that all these rich enviros are now pretty happy that the “last remaining sawmill in Colorado” was still around to take the logs. If that mill wasn’t there, where would all that wood have gone?
    I’m sure nobody will thank the mill, but I’m sure they’re very thankful it was there and have a new found and up close and personal appreciation for the timber industry.

    I suspect not! Instead, I suspect that derek’s “rich enviros” are much more inclined to be champions of the concepts of “defensible space” as per Jack Cohen’s continued crusades, and of using proper building materials in the construction of homes in the wildland-urban interface.

    But what do I know—other than that these little interchanges would be better informed if we could get some fire ecologists to weigh in. Apologies to any “fire ecologists” who have been commenting here, if I missed that fact.

    • Dave- it’s easy to “champion” providing defensible space, but a lot of folks don’t actually “do” it. As in many things with human beings, it is easy to promote ideals, not so easy to live up to them.

      Here’s the link.

      Here’s the history in Breckinridge
      Breckenridge repeals defensible space law
      Voluntary version of firebreak ordinance approved
      July, 28 2009
      summit daily news
      BRECKENRIDGE — A controversial ordinance mandating firebreaks on private property in Breckenridge was repealed Tuesday after town council members concluded it wouldn’t be worth the fight.

      A successful petition drive by local residents forced council to reconsider the ordinance; if not repealed, the matter could have been decided by the public in a special election.

      “We the town have lots of other things on our plate. I think to educate and work with the public from now to Nov. 3 would be very difficult,” Mayor John Warner said during Tuesday’s work session. “I’m not sure it would be effective.”

      The ordinance approved in June was intended to protect people and structures from catastrophic wildfire by requiring residents to cut healthy and unhealthy trees, and other vegetation, within specific boundaries.

      Councilmembers Eric Mamula and Dave Rossi voted against the ordinance last month; Tuesday’s vote for repeal was unanimous.

      Also Tuesday, a new version of the defensible space ordinance was approved as voluntary — meaning the necessary permits remain available for people who want to create firebreaks around their homes.

      Residents at the meeting said they opposed the new ordinance because it could affect their insurance rates.

      Rossi agreed.

      “I fear they would refuse to pay a claim based on a standard we are setting,” he said.

      The approved ordinance is to serve as an interim solution while long-term defensible space plans — including research of insurance companies’ policies — are under way.

      This ordinance — as well as repeal of the original one — will be up for final vote and public hearings on Aug. 11.

      Town staff worked about a year to prepare the defensible space legislation. Public feedback led to several changes in the wording — and illustrations in the ordinance depicting how some trees could be preserved.

      The legislation also stated that clear-cutting was not an option.

      The petition group, Committee to Rescind Ordinance 15, argued the law infringes upon their property rights and that the scientific evidence for defensible space isn’t sufficient enough to make it mandatory.

      Officials with the fire district have emphasized that similar legislation has been widely approved in California and Nevada because of its impacts on mitigating wildfires.

      Red, White and Blue Fire District chief Gary Green said that though the ordinance was repealed, the district will continue to support the town.

      He also said there was “blatant deception” from the opposition.

      “There was a significant amount of misinformation. I can respect disagreement on property rights,” he said, adding that people’s assertions that clear-cutting would be a regular practice were misleading.

      He said he supports requiring defensible space and fire-safe roofing material for new structures — moves for which some council members have expressed support.

      Town officials also said a task force may be formed to create alternatives for creating defensible space as well as plans for handling evacuations and other issues related to wildfires.

      The defensible space ordinance called for a member of the fire district to inspect properties and determine which trees must be removed.

      Of the more than 200 residences the fire district inspected this spring, the average home required 10 trees for removal.

      But residents of wooded areas complained of estimates ranging to $1,200 or more.

      It makes you wonder if they could get money for their trees, would it make defensible space easier to “sell” to homeowners?

      Also, not to be hyper-disciplinary but do “fire ecologists” have some disciplinary advantage over “fire behavior modelers” in predicting future fire behavior?

      • From the article:

        The petition group, Committee to Rescind Ordinance 15, argued the law infringes upon their property rights and that the scientific evidence for defensible space isn’t sufficient enough to make it mandatory.

        This reminds me of an earlier incident in Colorado when a county commissioner, tired of hearing such palpable nonsense argued in favor of setting up a special land use zone for people who wanted absolute personal property rights. The zone was called the “Stupid Zone,” wherein people could go to establish residences, businesses, etc. without the big bad government interfering with their property rights. The catch, however, is that there would be no law enforcement, no fire protection, no government subsidized roads, water, sewer, etc. I think that these personal property rights absolutists deserve such a zone.

        From Sharon:

        …do “fire ecologists” have some disciplinary advantage over “fire behavior modelers” in predicting future fire behavior?

        I dunno? But given what “quants” did to the Forest Service during the FORPLAN fiasco, and what “quants” did to all of us in what culminated (for now) in the Wall Street Meltdown in 2007-8, I’m suspicious of “fire behavior modelers.” Maybe they can do better than previous modelers. Maybe they are already doing it.

        PS.. I like what atmospheric modelers do with complexity theory models. AND on a personal note, I WAS one of those FORPLAN quants. But at least I was never a “true believer” in the power of FORPLAN. See: My Wars Against Economic Fundamentalism

        • Conversely, preservationists should be required to be surrounded by thick, unhealthy forests, with roads plagued with dead trees, wash-outs, and no emergency fire services. In fact, some people ALREADY live in such places but those people have not chosen to eschew active management. It has been forced upon them by preservationists and captured Agencies.

          Apparently, the rich are the only ones worthy of safe mountain living.

        • Dave- I am ready to talk about what fire ecologists find using what methods and what conclusions they draw.. right now it appears as if some of them frame the problem “what used to be the case?” and then study past vegetation and fire.

          It seems like fire modelers examine physical aspects of fire and try to predict what fires will do in the future. They may be wrong, but unlike FORPLAN, there are real fires to test their models against (if they do that). So if the question is “what will fires do?” I would think that their knowledge might be more relevant.

          I don’t know about “atmospheric” modelers, but climate modelers have trouble because the systems are complex and not understood.

          In my simplistic view, models are not good or bad based on theory they use, but on the success they have predicting real world events.

          • In my simplistic view, by contrast to yours Sharon, models for complex systems are useful not for their predictive power, but in trying to figure out—learn from—the world and its systems.

            Gaming financial systems for example, gives one an ability to try out strategies, tactics, etc., but does not give one the ability to predict outcomes—that are dependent on too many variable to give one much confidence. So too with ecological systems. Social/political systems have an interesting added complexity over so-called natural systems due to what is called the Hawthorne Effect. That is, when people know they are being ‘played,’ they change their behavior accordingly, as they learn what games are in play. In social theory, another learning-effect is often referred to as reflexivity. But that one is just ‘positive feedback’ that is also found in natural systems, but positive feedback due to learning—sometimes learning a wrong lesson, as in the case when people buy into a financial bubble late in the game.

            • Yes, but Dave.. I think you need to pick a lane.

              1) If your model is for understanding the universe, that’s fine. Get NSF to fund it and go for it!

              2) If you use your model to inform policy outcomes, then the people involved in that policy deserve to know what, if any, predictive capabilities it has.

              I believe that fire models are in category 2.

              • I agree that people deserve to know what, if any, predictive capabilities fire behavior models (or any other models) have in real-world settings. As to that, it appears that at present the answer is pretty much “none.” At least that’s my very quick assumption based on a quick Google search that led me to:
                “Integrating Fire Behavior Models and Geospatial Analysis for Wildland Fire Risk Assessment and Fuel Management Planning,” Alan A. Ager, Nicole M. Vaillant, and Mark A. Finney, Journal of Combustion Volume 2011, Article ID 572452

                From the conclusion:

                The bulk of current fire modeling training sponsored by US land management agencies focuses on the application of specific fire behavior models, and lacks integration with the landscape planning process used by fuel management planners. …
                Although recent reviews have catalogued and compiled information on numerous wildfire behavior and vegetation models (Table 1 and Table 2 in [13]), we note that the vast majority of models described have never been used in a federal NEPA planning effort at any scale, primarily because the model or tool was never designed for that purpose in the first place.

                [Update (had to run away to dinner)] OK.. Maybe not “zero.” But not all that good either, despite this that I missed in my earlier “quick read”:

                Controversial Forest Service fuel treatment projects have been completed with ArcFuels, FlamMap, and FVS, and the analyses have withstood court challenges.

                Remember that just because a modeling exercise withstands a court challenge, does not mean that it will survive extensive peer review, and perhaps subsequent court challenges. It will be interesting to see where all this goes.

                One final point: Didn’t I see somewhere in the last few weeks on NCFP some talk about Cray Computers? Talk about needing to get funding from the NSF or other deep-pockets people. Not that I’m ready to throw in the towel on this type modeling, just that I believe we are very early in the game.

    • Of course I know that dave knows all about the Breckenridge project or the Ophir mountain project. Ya, I guess a 5000 acre clearcut around the town of Breck would be considered “defensible space.” It also wasn’t appealed or litigated. The Ophir project clearcuts 1500 acres. Let’s see, there’s also the “Lower Blue Project” just north of Dillon that’s clearcutting another 5000 acres. Very little of that is WUI, and once again-presto-no appeals, litigation, or opposition from the citizens of a good liberal enviro county that gave obama 65% of the vote. There’s been lots of clearcutting around Frisco and Dillon. Maybe Bob Berwyn could do an interview with Colorado Wild and ask them WHY they stopped litigation.Frankly, I think the best thing for the West would have been to litigte the hell out of these Colorado projects. There’s still a chance to litigate the hell out of every project around the peoples republic of Boulder. What a wonderfull headline that would make. On the other hand, eventhough Dave may have a hard time believeing his enviro pals would embrace more logging, it is a reality.

  7. It seems like the high moisture levels used by the Nexus model might account for the discrepancy between the model and the real-life observations of fire managers.

    Moisture content can have a strong influence on fire behavior, and the model puts MC at a minimum of 70%. The on-the-ground observations were closer to 5-10%. Granted, the model uses a stand MC and the on-the-ground measurements were based on single tree measurements, so there is likely to be some difference.

    Still, I find it hard to believe that a stand composed mostly of dead trees, each with low MC’s individually, could translate to a stand with that high of a MC.

  8. I my experience, when bark beetles reach epidemic proportions, even healthy trees die off, due to the “Shotgun Effect”. If there are enough individual attacks, the tree loses too much sap in fighting the beetles with its “natural defenses”. I mixed, overstocked stands, there simply isn’t enough water available for all trees to have enough to survive the attacks. So, the entire stand becomes stressed for water, and the bark beetles become successful in attacking EVERY tree that their species attacks. For example, white firs end up with massive pitch streaming, and you often see pines which don’t have enough water to produce life-saving pitch. When you have a mixed conifer stand of P. pines, with a white fir-incense cedar understory, radically overstocked, it is usually the cedars which survive, setting the stage for complete combustion when fires occur. The cedars burn VERY well when green. I’ve torched off green cedar handpiles with a single kitchen match. Such stands which haven’t seen fires in their lifetime always have a thick layer of twigs, sticks and needles. Preserving such conditions also preserves the ultra-high fire dangers. The fuel moistures of those ground fuels are often close to zero, during the summer months.


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