In areas where many trees have been killed by pine beetle infestations, forest fires can spread more quickly, new research says. The dead trees are much drier than live wood, as are the red needles. The way fire behaves in areas struck by pine beetles, such as much of British Columbia and Montana, is changing dramatically in a short time.
The trees essentially become standing fuel, and, just as anyone who has ever started a campfire knows, dry wood burns faster than wet. Though this fact may seem obvious, researchers stress that they need to better understand how the trees burn to create more effective fire management plans, especially since the mountain pine beetle's territory seems to be spreading east. They also need to understand how the percentage of live and dead trees may affect the behavior of wildfires, to develop more specialized plans.
Flames from beetle-struck trees can reach 200 to 300 feet, and fires can spread to three acres in roughly two minutes--or over 100 acres in an hour--according to fire analyst Sonny Stiger, says Eve Byron in the Helena Independent Record. One ember from a dead tree can travel a quarter mile, and if it hits another dead tree is likely to ignite it, says forest service ecologist Matt Jolly, writes Matt Volz in an Associated Press article. Fire fighters must also deal with more large trees snapping above them, potentially blocking escape routes.