Fighting fire in a beetle-killed forest

Mountain Pine Beetle, matchWhen a forest that has been attacked by pine beetles is on fire, there is a lot that we do not know about the flammability, crown fire potential, and resistance to control of these burning stands of conifers. Testing the torching potential of individual beetle-killed crowns was conducted in the winter over a ground covered with snow using a propane burner as the heat source. Flammability of vegetation has been evaluated in a lab. But it has not been proven that existing fire spread models can accurately predict the rate of spread of a stand of trees that has been attacked by pine beetles. As the authors of the paper below stated:

It is a shocking admission that the only empirical investigation of fire behaviour in live, lodgepole pine stands is limited to a single study, involving surface fires, carried out in British Columbia, Canada, 45 years ago (Lawson, 1972;1973).

In an effort to summarize what we do and do not know, three scientists, Wesley G. Page, Michael J. Jenkins, and Martin E. Alexander, collaborated on a paper titled Crown fire potential in lodgepole pine forests during the red stage of mountain pine beetle attack. The entire paper can be read here — their conclusions are below:



True insight into understanding and predicting the possible effects of recent [Mountain Pine Beetle] MPB-caused tree mortality on surface and crown fire potential in lodgepole pine forests has so far proven to be largely an intractable problem. While significant progress has been made in recent years documenting the effects of MPB-related tree mortality on fuel complex structure as well as seasonal and diurnal fuel moistures, trying to accurately assess potential fire behaviour using either operational or physics-based fire behaviour models has proven problematic. Except for the recent development in British Columbia, Canada, with respect to astatisticalmodel(Perrakis et al., 2012), existing models tend to be either inappropriate and/or un-validated for use in MPB-attacked forests. Current operational fire behaviour models used in the US are not capable of addressing the complex spatial arrangements of crown fuels that occur in recently attacked stands. Physics-based models such as WFDS may in time serve to be useful research tools and aid in understanding the dynamic nature of fire behaviour, but until the limitations and sources of error are better understood, interpretations of the resulting simulations must be viewed with scepticism (Alexander and Cruz, 2013a).

Observations from experimental fires and wildfires indicate that a real and considerable increase in crown fire potential exists in recently attacked stands with an increase in rate of spread on the order of 2 –3 times the no-tree mortality predictions. However, the amount of red foliage within the canopy has important implications on the duration of the increased crown fire hazard. Site-specific factors such as the total and yearly amount of tree mortality, the length of the outbreak, and the preexisting stand conditions could all be important factors that could affect the severityand duration of the crown firehazard. Additional factors such as the juxtaposition of red and green crowns and the relative importance of needle drop and subsequent decreases in CBD vs the increased flammability of red foliage may be important to evaluating crown fire hazard but as yet are not fully understood.

Limitations in the ability to accurately assess crown fire potential in MPB-affected stands are likely to persist until accurate wildfire observations and/or experimental fires can be used to either validate current fire behaviour models or derive the needed empirical proportionality constants in VanWagner’s (1977) crownfire initiation and propagation models applicable to MPB-attacked stands. A program of experimental fires (Alexander and Quintilio, 1990; Stocks et al., 2004a) coupled with more systematic monitoring and documentation of wildfires (Alexander and Taylor, 2010) is needed in order to address these current shortcomings and gain insight into the underlying processes controlling fire behaviour in MPB fuel complexes. It is a shocking admission that the only empirical investigation of fire behaviour in live, lodgepole pine stands is limited to a single study, involving surface fires, carried out in British Columbia, Canada, 45 years ago (Lawson, 1972;1973). Additional information on the physical processes of foliage ignition and the relative effect of moisture content under varying heat fluxes will also aid in the development and modification of physics-based models that would greatly enhance our understanding of fire behaviour in these forest ecosystems (Ma¨kela¨ et al., 2000).

As the number and size of MPB outbreaks in western North America declines, opportunities to conduct experimental fires and observe fire behaviour in recently attacked stands will decrease. Simulating MPB-attack, similar to Schroeder and Mooney (2009; 2012), by girdling trees provides a potential way to extend the window of opportunity for experimental fires and to control for confounding factors. Investments in gathering and compiling fire behaviour data by fire management and fire research organizations will help provide a means to objectively assess fire behaviour potential in this unique fuel complex, which will increase the margin of safety for future wildland firefighters and aid in operational planning for fire managers. Meanwhile, wildland firefighters should continue to be vigilant in recently attacked MPB-affected lodgepole pine forests and follow the guidelines outlined in the fire environment factors listed in the ‘Look Up, Down and Around’ table for insect-killed forests found in the Incident Response Pocket Guide (National Wildfire Coordinating Group, 2010).”

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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.

2 thoughts on “Fighting fire in a beetle-killed forest”

  1. Being from BC and lived thru the beetle attack, I offer the following….

    Red attack-volatility based on fuel moisture content…below about 14% rh, the fire goes to the crown in a heartbeat. We also found a dual burn characteristic… fire would run away, ground fire would follow at a slower pace behind…..danger of reburn…

    After the burn went thru, significant occurrence of upper 1/3rd of trees snapping off (think its because of needle loading and fire intensity of fire in crooks of trees loaded with red needles)….

    Once the red is gone, 5 years later, the spotting in the grey can be bad (specially with a spruce understory) as it provides ladder fuel up into the grey that tosses huge chunks of grey bark from the pines….

    We have a lot of anectdotal evidence, just not a pile of scientific data….

    Be careful, don’t risk your life to save a few trees…. Situational Awareness takes priority….

    1. ^^Good stuff rock
      I went to a brief presentation on firefighter experiences in beetle killed forests in Colorado at the Large Wildland fire conference last week. Many of the comments they gathered echo your words. Most surprising (to me) was many comments on lack of increased spread while experiencing increased fire intensity.
      Again, this is not empirical data, so I applaud the research being done on modeling fire in beetle killed forests. Most of the modeling I’ve seen has been done by decreasing canopy base height and increasing bulk density to stimulate crown fire.


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