Forests: Study says spruce beetle not a big factor in recent southwest Colorado wildfires

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A major spruce beetle outbreak has been spreading across forests of southwest Colorado, but that hasn’t been a big factor in recent wildfires in the region, according to CU-Boulder research.

Climate, topography likely more significant, researchers say

Staff Report

Colorado researchers have added another chapter to the long-running debate over beetle-kill and wildfires, finding that spruce beetle infestations haven’t increased the severity of wildfires in southwestern Colorado.

Spruce bark beetles have affected roughly half a million acres of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir forests across the state in recent years, with infestations documented across an additional 87,000 acres in 2014.

There have also been several large and destructive wildfires in the region during the same period, leading to the nearly automatic assumption that the bugs and fires are related.

Not so, according to the new study by University of Colorado, Boulder scientists, who found that higher levels of spruce beetle infestation did not lead to more ecologically severe fires. The findings were published this week in the journal Ecological Applications.

The study is the first to quantify the influence of spruce beetle and fire severity on spruce-fir forests through direct field measurements as opposed to using satellite or aerial imagery. The researchers examined five recent subalpine fire zones in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.

“Our study is unique because we were actually out in the forest peeling bark off of the burned trees, looking for evidence of the beetle,” said Robert Andrus, a graduate researcher in the Department of Geography at CU-Boulder and lead author of the new study. “We were interested in the ecological effects of the interaction between these two disturbances and determining whether more trees were killed by fire in areas of higher beetle infestation.”

The lack of correlation between spruce beetle infestation and severe fire damage suggests that factors such as topography and weather conditions play a larger role in determining the severity of Colorado’s subalpine wildfires.

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