The influence of mountain pine beetle outbreaks and drought on severe wildfires in northwestern Colorado and southern Wyoming: A look at the past century
Outbreaks of bark beetles and drought both lead to concerns about increased fire risk, but the relative importance of these two factors is the subject of much debate. We examined how mountain pine beetle (MPB) outbreaks and drought have contributed to the fire regime of lodgepole pine forests in northwestern Colorado and adjacent areas of southern Wyoming over the past century. We used dendroecological methods to reconstruct the pre-fire history of MPB outbreaks in twenty lodgepole pine stands that had burned between 1939 and 2006 and in 20 nearby lodgepole pine stands that were otherwise similar but that had not burned. Our data represent c. 80% of all large fires that had occurred in lodgepole pine forests in this study area over the past century. We also compared Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) and actual evapotranspiration (AET) values between fire years and non-fire years. Burned stands were no more likely to have been affected by outbreak prior to fires than were nearby unburned stands. However, PDSI and AET values were both lower during fire years than during non-fire years. This work indicates that climate has been more important than outbreaks to the fire regime of lodgepole pine forests in this region over the past century. Indeed, we found no detectable increase in the occurrence of high-severity fires following MPB outbreaks. Dry conditions, rather than changes in fuels associated with outbreaks, appear to be most limiting to the occurrence of severe fires in these forests.