Bark Beetles not Major Player in Large-Scale Wildfires

January 24, 2013

A new study suggests that, despite popular opinion, bark beetles do NOT play a major role in large-scale wildfires in Colorado and other western regions. From Rocky Mountain Community Radio sister station KUNC, Erin O’Toole reports.

The study, published this week in Natural Areas Journal says past and current research shows that mountain pine beetle infestations don’t actually boost the risk of intense, fast-moving blazes. Barry Noon is a professor of wildlife ecology at Colorado State University, and a coauthor of the study.

"In a way that sounds a bit counterintuitive; admittedly dead needles have greater potential for ignition – by lightning, let’s say – than green needles. But the dead needles remain on the trees typically for about two to three years. And the ignition potential only remains high as long as the dead needles are on the trees. Once they fall off, the ignition potential is actually quite low."

Noon says the real driving force behind last year’s intense wildfires is drought -- fueled by climate change. Because of that, he says efforts to remove beetle-killed trees may reduce the risk of small wildfires, but will do little or nothing to control the catastrophic fires that devastated Colorado forests last year.