Less hysteria about fighting fire in beetle-killed forests: example, Church’s Park fire

Churchs park fire
Church’s Park fire. Photo from InciWeb (no date or photo credit)

More firefighters are recognizing that fire behavior in beetle-killed forests is not necessarily more extreme than you would see in green stands of trees. The Church’s Park fire near Fraser, Colorado is burning in areas that have been affected by the mountain pine beetle. The fire has burned 530 acres and is 30% contained. Here is an excerpt from Denver’s channel 7:

The fire is burning in an area filled with green pines and dead, gray-colored trees that have been killed by pine beetles.

“Because of the beetle kill, there’s a whole lot of dead trees,” said Austin Deganhart, one of the first people to report the fire Sunday afternoon. “All of the lodgepole pines stand anywhere from 20 to 40, 50 feet tall and they’re totally dry and dead. That’s what makes up the majority of our forest up here.”

Fire officials said the dead trees post a great danger because they may fall on firefighters.

“There is a significant amount of pine beetle killed trees in the fire area. The greatest danger from the trees is not in terms of fire behavior, but hazards and risks that are posed to our firefighters on the ground,” said Geoff Bell, the fire’s incident commander.

Geoff Bell is the Forest Fire Management Officer for the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest, working out of Fort Collins, Colorado. He is a former Superintendent of the Tatanka Hot Shots (still photos and video of the crew) on the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota.

An earlier article, which has been removed, even quoted the local Sheriff as saying the beetle-affected trees did not increase fire behavior. Oddly, in Colorado the County Sheriff is responsible for fire protection on unincorporated private land, so it’s good in this case that the Sheriff has some knowledge of wildland fire. I wonder if in some states the local fire chief is responsible for law enforcement?

Seven Senators ask for $49 million to fight beetles

Meanwhile, seven U. S. Senators signed a letter that was sent to the Secretary of Agriculture asking for an additional $49 million in just one U.S. Forest Service region, their Rocky Mountain Region, to fight the beetles. Part of their justification was that the forests, because of the beetles, are “at risk of catastrophic fire”. Last year $40 million was appropriated in the region for beetle mitigation. *sigh* Your tax dollars at work.

Our other articles about beetles.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

4 thoughts on “Less hysteria about fighting fire in beetle-killed forests: example, Church’s Park fire”

  1. I am not a scientist but have spent the past forty years in the fire & fuels management arena. I believe it is probably obvious, to other fire professionals, that the “beetle” issue is a multi pronged long term fire management challenge.
    I see it this way:
    1) Initially, before the needles fall,under the right conditions, there could be an increased risk for crown fire. We have seen that here in the Northern Rockies.
    2) After the needles fall you essentially have a snag patch with an occasional live tree. Fire behavior is reduced to ember ignitions snag to snag, with associated ground fire. The major threat to fire fighters is falling snags.
    3) Over the next several years, as regeneration begins to appear and the bug killed trees deteriorate and fall,the fuel model will begin to change.When the un-thinned regen reaches 15-20 feet in height, coupled with the accumulation of the fallen trees, predicted fire behavior will change dramatically. The fuel bed will more closely resemble a type 3-4 brush model rather than the original timber/litter model, in terms of energy release and rate of spread.
    So, this is a bit more complexed than the short term fire potential, might indicate.

  2. Having bucked up a dozen beetle-killed Lodgepole pine trees last month on my tiny lot on Seeley Lake, MT, a USFS lease, I would like to say that the commercial logging of beetle-killed trees, at least to some extent, ought to be an option on National Forests. Eeek. Logging. Yes, that’s right. It creates jobs, produces income for the Fed — the below-cost timber sale issue of the 1970s was a bit of a phony — and if done properly can help the forest.

  3. To give a bit of perspective on the issue of the Sheriff being responsible for wildland fires in CO, it’s not entirely what it seems.

    Without writing a novel on the matter, it is true that the Sheriff has ultimate responsibility for fires on private lands. However, most Sheriffs know that they’re in the job of law enforcement and let the FD’s do what they’re trained to do. I’ve been a firefighter in the mountains of CO for 13 years and we’ve always had an understanding with our Sheriff and have always worked well with them. About the most they get involved is some sort of joint command and the investigation. Some Sheriffs have attempted to take this job on and haven’t done so well.

  4. While I’ve heard a little in the past couple years about the research on whether beetle-kill exacerbates fire effects, the latest research is very new, and certainly “news” to most folks, even those very involved in wildfire. The discussion points up the need to constantly be looking at the science and to question our assumptions. However, given that all anyone’s heard in the media for YEARS has been about the elevated fire danger due to dead trees, it is not surprising that firefighters and policy makers are still concerned. It is going to take some time for policy and priority to catch up with the research findings.


Comments are closed.