Bark Beetles, Fuels, Fires and Implications for Forest Management in the Intermountain West

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Forest Ecology and Management

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Bark beetle-caused tree mortality in conifer forests affects the quantity and quality of forest fuels and has long been assumed to increase fire hazard and potential fire behavior. In reality, bark beetles, and their effects on fuel accumulation, and subsequent fire hazard, are poorly understood. We extensively sampled fuels in three bark beetle-affected Intermountain conifer forests and compared these data to existing research on bark beetle/fuels/fire interactions within the context of the disturbance regime. Data were collected in endemic, epidemic and post-epidemic stands of Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce. From these data, we evaluated the influence of bark beetle-caused tree mortality on various fuels characteristics over the course of a bark beetle rotation. The data showed that changes in fuels over time create periods where the potential for high intensity and/or severe fires increases or decreases. The net result of bark beetle epidemics was a substantial change in species composition and a highly altered fuels complex. Early in epidemics there is a net increase in the amount of fine surface fuels when compared to endemic stands. In post-epidemic stands large, dead, woody fuels, and live surface fuels dominate. We then discuss potential fire behavior in bark beetle-affected conifer fuels based on actual and simulated fuels data. Results indicated that for surface fires both rates of fire spread and fireline intensities were higher in the current epidemic stands than in the endemic stands. Rates of spread and fireline intensities were higher in epidemic stands due, however, to decreased vegetative sheltering and its effect on mid-flame wind speed, rather than changes in fuels. Passive crown fires were more likely in post-epidemic stands, but active crown fires were less likely due to decreased aerial fuel continuity. We also discuss the ecological effects of extreme fire behavior. Information is presented on managing forests to reduce the impact of bark beetle outbreaks and the interplay between management, bark beetle populations, fuels and fire hazard and behavior.