Mountain News 

Foresters say fire threat overstated

By Allen Best

SUMMIT COUNTY, Colo. – The fears of catastrophic fire resulting from the bark beetle infestation are somewhat overstated, say forestry scientists.

“There’s a popular misconception that the bugs turn the trees red and that equals more fires,” said Wayne Shepperd, a silviculturalist with the U.S. Forest Service. “Red trees do not appreciably increase the fire risk.”

In other words, the risk of ignition is no greater.

However, for the first year or two, when the dead trees still have red needles high in their crowns, the risk of a fire spread by crowns — typically, the most volatile type of forest fire — could be high, said another forest scientist, Mark Finney, a Montana-based fire researcher with the U.S. Forest Service. With “mile upon mile of trees dying within a short time,” Summit County and other areas hit hard by bark beetles could be at temporarily high risk, Finney told the Summit Daily News.

But Finney nonetheless believes a more nuanced discussion about forests and treatment options is needed. “All this talk, all this worry that we have an emergency might just go away in a year or two on its own,” he said.

The foresters say the greatest risk of fire may come 20 to 30 years after a bug infestation, when the dead trees are on the ground. In that case, super-hot, earth-baking fires could result.

“Mountain pine beetle epidemics may most significantly influence fire conditions 20 to 30 years into the future if big accumulations of large-diameter fuels on the forest floor create severe heating, consume the organic layer of the soil profile, sterilize the soil thus impeding forest regeneration,” said Dave Tippets, spokesman for the Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station.


A matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’

GRAND LAKE, Colo. – The headline on the Sky-Hi News was not “ If the big fire comes,” but rather “when.” The town, although located next to Colorado’s second-largest natural body of water, is located amid a large forest of dead and drying trees. With no week-long 40-below weather in decades to kill them, the bark beetles are now killing lodgepole pine that are as small as five inches in diameter.

To complicate matters, Grand Lake is located at the end of a road. Not even Aspen, Crested Butte or Telluride, which are all located at seasonal dead-ends, are so backed into a corner. As well, the mountain topography has yielded a street system that is anything but rectangular.


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