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Report: Forest Beetles Not to Blame for Big Western Fires

March 8, 2010

CASPER, Wyo. - Big wildfires in the forest back country through the West are often blamed on pine bark beetles, with the thought that the diseased and dead trees left by the insects present a higher fire risk. In fact, plans are underway to cut down such trees in some roadless areas in Colorado in the name of fire protection, and the idea has been eyed for forests in Wyoming and elsewhere.

However, a new report from the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy finds beetle outbreaks are not directly related to a higher fire risk. Report author Dr. Dominick Kulakowski, who is a professor of geography and biology at Clark University, says the conclusion is that drought and higher temperatures, and not the work of beetles, fuel back country fires.

"And, in fact, drought conditions are so important to the occurrence of wildfires that whatever effect bark beetles outbreaks have are largely overwritten."

The report suggests that the limited money available to reduce forest fire risk be spent on protecting communities at the edge of the forests, which Kulakowski calls more cost-effective than back country tree-cutting projects.

"The best strategy is to clear away fuels and other flammable material from the vicinity of our homes, and make sure that we use non-flammable materials on our homes as much as possible."

Western forests are seeing the biggest beetle outbreaks in decades, with millions of acres of lodgepole pines killed.

The full report, "Insects and Roadless Forests: A Scientific Review of Causes, Consequences and Management Alternatives," is at nccsp.org

Deb Courson, Public News Service - WY