Fuels and Fire Behavior Dynamics in Bark Beetle-attacked forests in Western North America and Implications for Fire Management

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Forest Ecology and Management

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Declining forest health attributed to associations between extensive bark beetle-caused tree mortality, accumulations of hazardous fuels, wildfire, and climate change have catalyzed changes in forest health and wildfire protection policies of land management agencies. These changes subsequently prompted research to investigate the extent to which bark beetle-altered fuel complexes affect fire behavior. Although not yet rigorously quantified, the results of the investigations, in addition to a growing body of operational experience, indicate that predictable changes in surface, ladder and canopy fuel character- istics do occur over the course of a bark beetle rotation. Input of these changes in fuel characteristics into conventional fire behavior modeling systems can readily provide predictions of potential fire behavior, including the likelihood of crowning. However, several factors limit the direct application of these mod- eling systems in their current form and consequently, they may largely under predict fire potential in such stands. This presents a concern where extreme fire behavior involving both crowning and spotting coupled with flammable fuel conditions can pose serious challenges to incident management and threa- ten the safety of firefighters and the general public alike. In this paper, we review the nature and char- acteristics of bark beetle-altered fuel complexes in the conifer forests of the Interior West and the challenges of understanding the effects on extreme fire behavior, including the initiation and spread of crown fires. We also discuss how emerging fire management plans in the U.S. have begun to integrate wildfire management and other forest health objectives with the specific goal of achieving biodiversity and ecosystem resiliency while simultaneously reducing the existence of hazardous fuel complexes.