A Fire of Biblical Proportions


Could a Fire of Biblical Proprotions happen?  Maybe it could, courtesy of a 1/2 inch long insect, the greens organizations and inept public policy.

When I was fishing the Blue River 7/25/08, I could see the receipe for a mammoth fire looming in the Blue River Valley. From the valley floor, up the mountainside the bottom 1/3 of the pine trees were green and top 2/3 were the rusty brown color of trees killed by the mountain pine beetle.

close up of adult mountain pine beetle
See the life cycle of the mountain pine beetle

It is not a matter if the fire starts but when.  Nor even how it starts.  After it starts, the residents of Dillon and Silverthorne, CO better have their belongings packed and gone.  I seriously doubt that fire suppression crews can react fast enough to save most of the towns.

These two mountain towns are not the only ones in danger.  The pine beetle has killed off enough trees in British Columbia, the kill zone can be seen from space.  It is an area larger than England.  (1)

The western pine beetle is the one we experience in the Colorado area as opposed to the Southern Pine beetle of Appalachian forests.

The western pine beetle is most damaging in California, but it is also found in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, western Texas and as far southward as northwestern Mexico. Forests most commonly affected are between 2,000 and 6,000 feet (600 to 1,800 m). But it can be found below 1,000 feet (300 m) and above 8,000 feet (2,400 m) in Mexico. (2)

While the western pine beetle acts as a natural thinner by killing slow-growning drought stressed trees, epidemic outbreaks such as we are seeing in the western US and Canada, can be the tinder for massive wildfires.  Imagine if you will 2008 California type fires buring in 8 of the 11 infested western states.  There would not be enough trained fire fighters to combat such a situation. Impossible you say.  Not at all, as large fires generate their own fire storm sucking in air at the bottom of the fire for oxygen and producing massive walls of high flames.  Once a fire gets into the crowns of trees, live or dead, with winds to drive it, it becomes extremely difficult to contain and put out. Fire doesn’t stop at state boundaries.

Ponderosa, lodgepole, Scotch and limber pine are the types of pines typically attacked by the western pine beetle. Bristlecone and pinyon pine are less commonly attacked.  There are two types of beetles that attack our western pines.  The red turpentine beetle and the engraver beetle.  The turpentine beetle attacks the lower trunk and the engraver beetles the crown area.  The male engraver beetle bores into the tree emitting a chemical to attract a female.  Then the couple bore out a nuptial chamber in which they mate. After mating, they bore out egg gallery tunnels and the female lays eggs at the edges of the tunnel.  The larvae feed on the inner bark; interrupt the flow of nutrients to the tree; resulting in death of the tree, usually within one season.  Once a tree is infested, it can’t be saved.  There are no effective sprays or insecticides for bark beetles.  About the only thing that does kill them is heat over 160 degrees F.(3)  Hence the high intensity fires that usually result in massive beetle killed forest areas help to kill the beetles and their larvae from the burning of the standing infected trees and the infected downed trees on the forest floor.

Controlling an epidemic pine beetle outbreak depends on identifying, cutting and removing brood trees.  Brood trees are still green and appear ok unless examined closely.  Look for pitch tubes and/or borer dust in the bark crevises or dust at the foot of the tree. If brood trees are found, they should be cut and removed from the area.  Pine beetles, will continue to live in the cut trees, mature and fly off to infect other uninfected trees.  The mature beetles have been known to move as much as 300 miles with a good wind.

lodgepole pine showing pitch tubes from pine beetle attack
pitch tubes on lodgepole
pine from pine beetle
base of lodgepole pine showing pitch tubes and frass
base of lodgepole pine
showing pitch tubes and
 Base of lodgepole pine showing boring dust and frass
base of lodgepole pine
showing boring dust
and frass
 Mountain Pine Beetle galleries with larva visible
mountain Pine Beetle galleries with larva


Mountain pine beetle adults under the bark
Mountain pine beetle adults under the bark

Living healthy forests take in a certain amount carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen as a byproduct. Thus a living forest acts as a carbon sink.  A dead forest of standing trees can’t absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.

The downed decaying trees become a net emitter of carbon dioxide adding to the carbon load in the atmosphere.  Canadian scientists unveiled projections that between 2000 and 2020, the forest in British Columbia will have lost 270 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Annual emissions from the worst year of infestation come close to matching the average annual emissions from all the forest fires the country experienced between 1959 and 1999, researchers say. Over the 21-year period the projections cover, emissions from the affected forests appear comparable to five years’ worth of emissions from Canada’s entire transportation sector. (4)

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Association (NOAA) using it’s new modeling system Carbon Tracker found that the 2002 North American drought left an extra 360 Million Tons of heat trapping carbon in the atmosphere, equivalent to the emissions of 200 million U.S. cars that year. The reason was the reduced ability of forests, grasslands, crops and soil to absorb carbon dioxide during one of the worst droughts in many years. (Bill Scanlon article Rocky Mountain News)

Drought combined with epidemic pine beetle infestations in North America have set the stage for a fire of biblical proportions.  And that may be what it takes to bring balance back to our forests caused by ill-formed public policy fostered by pressure from a small minority of greens with too many lawyers and too little understanding of what their politics are doing to our forests.

The opinions expressed in this post are purely those of the editor. Other facts are noted for reference.

Marshall, Editor

  1  http://www.economist.com/world/la/displaystory.cfm?
2  http://www.na.fs.fed.us/spfo/pubs/fidls/we_pine_beetle/wpb.htm
3  http://www.neighborhoodlink.com/yavapaico/potatopatch/genpage/
4  http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/0424/p04s05-usgn.html












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