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Cursed Science: Pine Beetle Not Linked to Increased Fire Risk

Pine beetle: not a fire bug.
Pine beetle: not a fire bug.

South Dakota’s legislators and Congressional delegation have directed millions of dollars toward fighting the pine beetle in the Black Hills to prevent catastrophic fire.

Um… Science?

Western pine forests that have been devastated by pine beetles at least have one respite according to new research: They are not more likely to burn.

“We found that alterations in the forest infested by the mountain pine beetle are not as important in fires as overriding drivers like climate and topography,” said Sarah Hart, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Colorado-Boulder and lead author of a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The bottom line is that forests infested by the mountain pine beetle are not more likely to burn at a regional scale” [Joshua Rapp Learn, “Pine Beetle Infestations Won’t Spark More Flames: Study,” The Wildlife Society, 2015.03.24].

But what’s making wildfires worse? The stuff Republicans don’t want to study:

In fact, Schoennagel and her colleagues found that factors such as increasing temperatures due to climate change and drought that has gripped the U.S. Southwest since 2002 have led to more fires.

This finding has implications for the way government agencies spend money on forest thinning or other fire mitigation strategies, which Schoennagel said may not be an effective use of budgets.

“These results refute the assumption that increased bark beetle activity has increased area burned,” wrote the researchers in PNAS. “Therefore, policy discussions should focus on societal adaptation to the effect of the underlying drivers: warmer temperatures and increased drought” [Learn, 2015.03.24].

But it’s so darn much more fun to go out with our trucks and chain saws, knock down big timber, and fight evil arthropods than it is to change our own behavior, which actually puts the Hills at more risk of the danger we say we’re fighting.


  1. grudznick 2015-04-01 17:26

    When those nasty little bug beasties kill a tree the green needles dry up and the flammable juices in the tree are reduced.

    But yes, the real issue is the ugliness and the crony capitalists who want the pretty green to be there to sell knick knacks to the gullible out of staters.

    We still should think about not having any more droughts because they seem a bad thing in general. I’m just sayin…

  2. larry kurtz 2015-04-01 17:40

    Note that the Colorado study focused primarily on lodgepole: <a href="

    Lodgepole tends to be logged for post, pole and oriented strand board (OSB); ponderosa pine, Douglas Fir and Engelmann Spruce tend to be logged for lumber.

    Lodgepole pine and Douglas Fir have been extirpated from the Black Hills for nearly a century: the oldest aspen was virtually logged out during European settlement; yet, tiny stands of old-growth ponderosa pine can still be found in the Hills.

    Ponderosa pine contains a much higher level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than many other cone-bearing trees and tends to be more explosive in wildfire conditions especially when under drought stress. Beetle-affected trees are pockmarked with ‘pitchouts’ that burst into flames during wildfires and torch more readily.

  3. grudznick 2015-04-01 18:01

    That is one of your most interesting posts ever, Mr. kurtz. So those damn bugs are bossturds after all.

  4. larry kurtz 2015-04-01 18:06

    grudzling, the bug is working so Black Hills fire managers will have enough water to save Rapid City from the cleansing wildland fire we all know is coming.

  5. jerry 2015-04-01 18:18

    NOem, Thune and EB-5 all get lots of payola from the timber boys and girls. So to keep that gravy train rolling, they must paint the beetle as the biggest danger since Richard Benda in order to keep the public ignorant while fleecing it.

  6. mike from iowa 2015-04-01 18:27

    More clear cut spaces equals more pot growing opportunities for criminals who seem to have taken over National Forests. Is that what you people want? Unintended consequences because……?

  7. jerry 2015-04-01 18:32

    Out side growing wastes to much water mfi. In Colorado and other places where water is scarce, the best way is a controlled environment. You can check out we grow for their advise.

    The clear cut areas should bring about more opportunities for grazing spots for elk and deer or sheep for that matter. If we could dare to dream, maybe even Aspen growths would start to appear with greater numbers.

  8. Joe Lowe 2015-04-01 18:33

    Ok, I have to wade in on this one. I was the State of South Dakota Wildldand Fire Chief and have been involved in numerous wildfires during my 36 years. I agree with Josha Rapps statement “The bottom line is that forests infested by the mountain pine beetle are not more likely to burn at a regional scale”. Fires in pine beetle attacked do burn with increased rates of surface fire spread (how fast the fire moves from one point to the other, produce greater fireline intensities, and the potential for crown fires is greater ( fire in the tree canopy). See the study that was done by the USDA - So this equates to harder to suppress fires and greater dangers to firefighters. Any wildland firefighter knows that drought, dry fuels, continuity of the fuel bed, hot weather and wind contribute to larger fires. So what we are trying to do, with money spent on fuels reduction, is mitigate the fuel factors that cause fires that burn with great intensity and thus become harder to suppress.

  9. grudznick 2015-04-01 18:37

    Now it’s your second most interesting post, Lar.

  10. larry kurtz 2015-04-01 18:40

    Rewild the West. Statehood for the tribes and Mexico.

  11. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-04-01 19:19

    I was getting worried Larry, I thought you weren’t going to say, “Rewild the West. Statehood for the tribes and Mexico.”

    I’m all for science, but —- It just makes sense to me that dead trees burn quicker and hotter than live trees. That’s why we use dead wood for our fireplaces, rather than live, green wood. Right?

  12. John 2015-04-01 21:27

    Deb, that’s what I thought, too. But reflect on the science. Also reflect on the experience from Colorado, Wyoming, and other states that were hit by the MPB harder and earlier than South Dakota. The dead snags just do not burn with the intensity of the pitch-laden trees. I don’t burn pine in my fire place because the pitch from 1-3 year old cut logs that died from cutting and not MPB, causes the fire to spark and spit – even through the screen. Pine without the pitch in MPB killed tress the remainder is likely just lignin and burns out easier. The study’s conclusion that topography contributes to wildfire is borne out in experience when agencies don’t force cutters to harvest the hard topography. If opened the borders and timber contracts to folks who wanted to work then cutting the ‘hard topography’ would be far less of an issue when it comes to timber in hard topography contributing to wildfire.

  13. Paul Seamans 2015-04-01 23:38

    Ecologists that deal with the forests, silvaculturists, have known for decades that our forests are unhealthy and conditions were ripe for a catastrophe. I agree with those that claim that nothing man can do will stop the beetle epidemic. Nothing, that is, short of slowing man-made climate change.

  14. Nick Nemec 2015-04-02 10:14

    Why rely on a bat to do what the big chemical companies can do?

    Pay no attention to the man with the PAC checks behind the curtain!

  15. Rorschach 2015-04-02 10:15

    There is a good article about the mountain pine beetle in the April National Geographic. Global warming has spread the range of the MPB north into Canada “where winter temperatures are no longer reliably cold enough to kill them.”

    Drought stresses the trees making them easier for the beetles to kill, and warmer temperatures give the beetles more time to attack the trees. According to the article, the “flying season” for beetles in Montana used to be 2 weeks in July, and now it lasts into October. They have much more time than they used to have to find new trees and to breed.

    On the bright side, the blue-stained beetle wood makes for fine looking lumber.

  16. jerry 2015-04-02 10:37

    Tehran John would be in complete support of the bats if they only had money to put into the barrels full that he has now. Ten and a half million bucks is a lot, but not a lot to Tehran John I guess.

  17. Les 2015-04-02 11:06

    In Arizona they say they need under 20 degrees to kill the bug. In SD we say we need under -20 for however long I m not sure, to kill the bug. Maybe until the next ice age would gitter done, Rors.

    I’m sure most believe man affects climate but to say this earth hasn’t created its own or been victim of extreme cyclical weather in the millions or hundreds of thousands of years until now makes us pretty damn important.

  18. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-04-02 23:12

    Thanks for the info John. I understand what you’re saying about pitch in the trees and how they burn.

Comments are closed.