Wildfire and Spruce Beetle Outbreak: Simulation of Interacting Disturbances in the Central Rocky Mountains

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Infrequent large-scale natural disturbance regimes are an integral component of Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii) forests of the central Rocky Mountains. Wildfires, bark beetle outbreaks, winds, and avalanches cause relatively drastic changes in community structure, composition, and function. These disturbances may occur independently or interact where the incidence of one may change the potential for another. We assessed potential wildfire behaviour change in the wake of a catastrophic, landscape-wide spruce beetle (Dendroctonus rufipennis) outbreak in southern Utah, USA. Using data collected in spruce forests affected by the outbreak, the Forest Vegetation Simulator and Fire and Fuels Extension were used to simulate long-term (100 y) stand dynamics and potential fire behaviour under 3 reconstructed scenarios: no spruce beetle outbreak (low-severity), 50% spruce beetle-caused mortality (mid-severity), and 95% spruce beetle-caused mortality (high-severity). Simulations suggested a likely reduction in probability of active crown fire for 1 or 2 decades on near-pure Engelmann spruce sites after high-severity mortality. This counterintuitive result suggested extreme fire behaviour is not an inevitable consequence of spruce beetle outbreaks. No change in potential fire behaviour was predicted in stands with the least reduction in spruce basal area (low- or mid-severity). In one stand with a history of surface fire, stand structure and potential fire behaviour from low- and high-severity simulations were influenced by surface fire 100 y ago. These results are indicative of complex disturbance interactions that were influenced by the host-specific spruce beetle, resultant stand structures and fuel profiles, and in one case antecedent disturbance.