Beetle-killed trees affect fire behavior in Montana

The Missoulian has an article about how beetle-killed trees affected fire behavior in Montana this summer. Here is an excerpt:

For [Tyler] Brothers and pilot Matt Conant above the Bielenburg fire, the afternoon of Sept. 26 just wouldn’t quit. Even the smoke was weird.

“For some odd reason, when it got to highway, it would lift up over the highway, and then curl back down,” Brothers said of the smoke column. “People were thinking it was spotting over the highway, eight miles away.”

And then, Brothers saw the Racetrack campground, and two trucks parked there.

The wind was gusting over 40 mph, knocking the helicopter around. The fire was a mile from the campground and moving that way fast. Fire incident commander Jon Agner ordered the helicopter crew to find the campers and prepare them for evacuation. Powell County Sheriff’s Deputy Ron Cain also drove into the woods to lead them out.

The firefighters lost radio contact with Cain. Fire burned over the Racetrack campground. Brothers eventually found Cain, two fathers and two kids three miles farther into the forest, where they were surrounded by beetle-killed trees and no safety zone. Agner was able to drive up the drainage and lead the group down the blackened road.

As evening came on and the fire calmed down, Brothers made another mapping circuit of the fire. This time, he saw a truck parked at a small Forest Service cabin still farther up the Racetrack drainage. A big tree had fallen across the truck’s bed, immobilizing it.

The helicopter crew scouted several ATV trails that wove amongst the lakes at the head of the drainage, but couldn’t find the truck’s occupants before darkness forced them back to base. Forest Service law enforcement rangers had to drive up the road in the dark to find the two campers, cut their truck free and lead them out. The ground was so hot, it scorched the paint on their vehicles.


Beetle-killed trees and fire

It has been a quiet fire season so far. Only two Type 1 incident management teams have had assignments, and there have been none since May 14. That is amazing for late July.

But in many places across the Rocky Mountain area, the number of beetle-killed trees are growing exponentially. Last week I was in Colorado and saw many tracts consisting of hundreds of acres of 95% pine mortality northwest of Denver. When drought, fire weather, and ignition sources line up in these areas in Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and some areas in Canada, firefighters are going to have some stories to tell.

The Missoulian has an article about how the beetle-killed forests will affect firefighting. Read the whole article, but here is an excerpt:

….And that’s the new challenge with beetle-killed forests, according to Bielenberg incident commander Jess Secrest.

“It reduces the chances of catching the fire at the initial attack stage,” Secrest said. “We’ve got ladder fuels all over the ground, so it gets into the (treetop) crowns easier. And the heat released in a bug-kill fire is greater, so we have to cut wider lines, make more water drops, and so on.”

Fire in a healthy, green forest often creeps along the ground, burning grass and shrubs but not mature trees unless a windstorm gives it a boost into the forest canopy. The Bielenberg fire was somewhat unusual for the amount of still-green vegetation on the forest floor – usually inhospitable territory for flames.

But the beetle-killed lodgepole trees provide lots of crisp tinder for the flames and easy access into the tops. And there, they transform into the crowning runs that speed walls of flame across landscapes.


(Stan) Benes (the deputy incident commander at the Bielenberg fire) said earlier this year, incident commanders were briefed on what to expect from the coming fire season.

“One of the themes was we’ll be seeing larger fires with more difficulty,” he said. “And that could be the theme for the rest of our careers. This is going to be with us for a while.”



Thanks Dick

Wildfire news, July 4, 2009

First, have a great and safe Independence Day!


A story of success and failure in the war on beetles

There have been a lot of pine beetle stories appearing recently, probably because we’re getting into the western fire season and beetle-killed forests will be a firefighter’s and land owner’s nightmare.

The Missoula Independent has an article about a land owner who tried to do everything right in battling the critters, but their efforts to recruit their neighbors into the effort had limited success.

Thanks Kelly

Panthern Creek fire, North Cascades National Park

National Park Service photo

North Cascades National Park has a 70-acre 123-acre fire that they are unable to staff due to “steep and dangerous terrain”. It started June 28 from lightning and is expected to grow over the weekend with the predicted hot and dry weather. It is burning in the Ross Lake National Recreation Area on the east flank of Ruby Mountain above Panther Creek.

Fire conditions in northern Montana

Daily has an article about the wildfire conditions in northern Montana and the Flathead National Forest.

The Flathead Hot Shots have yet to be shipped off to a wildfire, perhaps an indicator of a quiet summer fire season ahead. Across the West, fire activity has been well below average years, when resources such as Hot Shot crews are sent to one fire after another.

“Based on the fact that we’ve had a lack of fires, there are a lot of resources sitting at home,” said Rick Connell, the new fire management officer on the Flathead National Forest. “The Flathead Hot Shots haven’t left since they came on around May 10.”

Connell added that he’s not aware of any other Hot Shot crews in the Northern Region being sent to fires.

The potential, of course, can change from one week to the next depending on rain, heat, lightning and human-caused fires.

So far this year, the Flathead Valley has gotten 7.16 inches of precipitation, 2.25 inches below the average of 9.41 inches through July 2.

“We’re not having an early fire season, which is good,” Connell said. “We’ll have to see over the next few weeks whether we get precipitation or not.”

Prescribed burns carried out in the late spring showed that heavy fuels “burned pretty well,” Connell said, but light vegetation on the forest is still green. Fuels are drying out at lower elevations in local fire department jurisdictions, which can present a challenge, particularly over the Fourth of July weekend.

“You don’t really know when the human side is going to kick in,” Connell said. “This weekend we are staffing up a bit to help cover things.”

A continued lack of fires in other Western states will ensure plentiful resources available if a fire does break out in Montana, where August is typically the peak month for fire.

But this season will be the first since the air tanker base at Glacier Park International Airport was closed. Connell said he does not believe the closure will have a significant impact, even during a busy fire season.

“Around here, we’ve got a lot of water. A lot of lakes and rivers,” he said. “Helicopters … are probably a lot more efficient for our needs.”

Tankers still will be available from bases in Missoula, Helena and Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho, Connell said, noting that the bigger issue regarding tankers is that there are few that remain in service nationally. Other aircraft such as single-engine tankers and ‘super scooper” aircraft are helping to fill in when they are needed.

“There are other tools that are available to us as the situation warrants,” Connell said.

A homeowner’s beetle battle

Loggers recently cut down many trees behind the house, leaving a meadowy hill in their wake. Photo: Jamie Osborne

The New York Times has an article about a couple who 12 years ago built a house on 11 acres of land outside Helena, Montana. Then beginning 4 years ago, the bark beetles started killing the trees. Now, after hauling away the dead ones, they are living in a meadow and for the first time can see their neighbors.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

…When we bought the land, the stands of timber were so dense and unruly you couldn’t walk through parts of the property. I bought my first chainsaw, an orange beauty. I spent a lot of time thinning small trees, sawing up bigger ones for firewood, splitting and stacking the wood, and using it all to heat our house. We rarely used the propane furnace. Our masonry wood stove from Finland, a Tulikivi, has a mass of gray soapstone around the fire box that stores the warmth and radiates heat into the house for 24 hours, even in the coldest days of December.

And we were “fireproofing” our property, thinning trees around the house should a wildfire break out.

Four years ago, the beetles came. First a couple of our oldest pine trees turned red. Alarmed, we quickly cut them down and covered them with black plastic. It’s stomach-churning when the tree reaper comes to claim your forest. One day ivory-colored plugs that look like candle wax are plastered on the trunk, a sign the tree is pumping out resin to try to halt a drilling bug. Sometimes a tree wins by entombing a beetle; far more often the trees lose to the mob assault.

Then things went exponential. One dead tree turned to five and the next year five turned to 30, dying far faster than I could cut them down. Now the mortality count is in the hundreds, more than 95 percent of our forest, and many more in the national forest around us.

Last week we threw in the towel. A logging crew cut down all but a few of our trees, taking away our forest and leaving us a meadow. The trees, too damaged to be turned into lumber, were hauled off to a pulp plant, where they will be ground into an oatmeal-like slurry and turned into cardboard boxes. I won’t make money; in fact it will cost me some $700 an acre to get rid of them. And good riddance — the sooner they’re gone the better. Dead trees are a fire waiting to happen….

In a related story, Senator John Thune, R-SD, proposes to fight the beetle problem with more logging, in addition to other methods. From the Rapid City Journal:

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., outlined a comprehensive plan Thursday designed to address the growing pine beetle infestation in Black Hills National Forest and surrounding areas.

Thune’s plan centers on forest management practices, creating a market for woody biomass material removed from the forest and reforming the U.S. Forest Service’s mechanism for funding forest management and fire response activities, according to a news release from the senator.

“The pine beetle infestation is destroying acres of beautiful forest land at an alarming rate while raising the danger of wildfires to very high levels,” Thune, who is a member of the Senate Ag committe which oversees national forests, said in the release. “My plan employs effective techniques that will preserve the health of our forest with an emphasis on fire prevention while at the same time expanding the region’s potential for renewable energy development.”

Thune’s pine beetle plan includes provisions such as:

  • Strong timber harvest targets over the next five years.
  • Expansion of the Health Forest Restoration Act expedited environmental review process.
  • Streamlined Forest Stewardship Contracts.
  • Implementation and extension of the Biomass Crop Assistance Program.
  • Expansion of the renewable biomass definition to include forest waste.
  • Reformed Forest Service funding for forest management and fire suppression activities.

Bark beetles and fire

The New York Times has an article about the effect of bark beetles on fire. Here is an excerpt:

DENVER — Summer fire seasons in the great forests of the West have always hinged on elements of chance: a heat wave in August, a random lightning strike, a passing storm front that whips a small fire into an inferno or dampens it with cooling rain.

But tiny bark beetles, munching and killing pine trees by the millions from Colorado to Canada, are now increasingly adding their own new dynamic. As the height of summer fire season approaches, more than seven million acres of forest in the United States have been declared all but dead, throwing a swath of land bigger than Massachusetts into a kind of fire-cycle purgatory that forestry officials admit they do not yet have a good handle on for fire prediction or assessment.

Dead trees, depending on how recently they died, may be much more flammable than living trees, or slightly more flammable, or even for a certain period less flammable. The only certainties are that dead forests are growing in size and scale —22 million more acres are expected to die over the next 15 years — and that foresters, like the fire-tower lookouts of old, are keeping their eyes peeled and their fingers crossed.

“There’s just a lot more fuel in those dead forests available to burn,” said Bob Harrington, the Montana state forester, who is focusing additional resources this summer on a three-million-acre zone of beetle-infested forest from Butte to Helena.

More than 100,000 people live in that area, and Mr. Harrington said that although fire forecasts for Montana, as in most of the West, called for only an average fire season, dead forests do not play by the rules. They can dry out much faster in heat, without living tree tissue to hold water.

Other beetle watchers say the nightmare of a severe fire season concentrated in the dead-forest zone running along the spine of the Rocky Mountains has, so far, been averted. In Colorado, a combination of deep snows last winter followed by a wet spring has kept fire danger low. But scientists say that recent winters have also lacked the stretches of deep cold — 20 to 40 degrees below zero — that can check the insects’ spread.

“Right now, in our neck of the woods, we’re really wet,” said Mary Ann Chambers, a spokeswoman for the federal Forest Service’s bark beetle incident management team for a five-state region that includes Colorado. “We seem to have dodged the bullet — again.”

The government’s four-month fire forecast issued in June called for a potentially more active fire season in central Washington and Northern California. But most of the rest of the region, like the country, is expecting normal or below-normal conditions.

The Forest Service proposed a tree-thinning program of fire protection just outside Helena, for example, in 1997, when the forest was green and healthy. The project was stalled by litigation for 12 years until earlier this year, when a federal appeals court in San Francisco finally ruled for the Forest Service that the thinning plan could proceed.

“In the interim, the bark beetle entered the picture,” said Duane Harp, a district ranger in the Helena National Forest. “Now 90 percent of the trees when we started the project are dead.”

Government lawyers said the Forest Service could be sued again if it went ahead with the old plan on a now fundamentally altered forest, Mr. Harp said, so foresters are reassessing the impact of thinning in a dead forest.


Thanks Dick

Researchers testing fire on beetle-killed trees

burning beetle killed tree
Zach Becker and Eric Jones of the Alpine Hot Shots test a burning technique on a Lodgepole pine. The Coloradoan

The Alpine Hot Shots are assisting researchers who are testing the effects of burning trees in a 50-acre test site that were killed by bark beetles in Rocky Mountain National Park west of Denver.

Standing in the snow and using a propane-fueled torch, the Hot Shots ignite the dead or dying, red-needled lodgepole pine trees one or two at a time hoping that the fire will kill the beetles that spend the winter embedded in the bark of the trees.

The researchers from Colorado State University and the National Park Service also want to determine if the heat will cause the serotinous cones, which only open with the heat of a fire, will drop their seeds onto the snow and reforest the affected areas.

In tests on Wednesday, the Hot Shots and researchers found that if a tree has lost 50 percent of its needles or if it is infested but still has some green needles, it is difficult to burn in the winter.

Burning the standing trees while there is snow on the ground may also be a method for reducing the flammable fuels around developed areas, creating a fuel break.

If this experiment works, the technique might also be used to pretreat planned prescribed fire areas, creating a black line around the perimeter and making it easier and safer to burn the unit.