Wildfires tear through Colorado's beetle-bitten forests

Wildfires tear through Colorado's beetle-bitten forests

October 27, 2020
The Verge

Record-setting wildfires in Colorado are wreaking havoc on forests that have already been devastated by outbreaks of another kind: infestations of beetles that burrow beneath tree bark and eventually kill their hosts.

State officials last week mentioned that the East Troublesome Fire was burning through an abundance of “beetle-killed” pine trees, boosted by dangerous weather conditions. That fire grew to become the second largest fire in Colorado’s history and was only 20 percent contained as of Tuesday. Three of the largest wildfires on record in the state have burned this year, and they’ve preyed on forests hard-hit by beetle infestations.

But researchers warn against blaming the beetles for the unprecedented fire season Colorado is having. There’s growing evidence that beetles play a negligible role in the spread and severity of fires. Our changing climate is likely a bigger culprit behind the destruction of Colorado’s forests. Hotter, drier conditions are fueling wildfires and bark beetle infestations. If the planet continues to heat up unchecked, both problems are expected to get worse.

“Recent [beetle] outbreaks can distract us from the big picture, which is that we should get used to living with fires,” says Dominik Kulakowski, a professor at Clark University who has studied the effects of bark beetles on wildfire behavior. “Large fires are going to keep occurring, and the exact condition of the forest is going to matter less [the more extreme weather and climatic conditions are].”

It’s easy to see why the beetle has become a sort of boogeyman in Colorado and other Western states. Beetles burrow beneath tree bark to lay their larvae, slowly killing the tree as they chew tunnels through it. Winter used to keep beetle populations in check, but milder temperatures have allowed their numbers to boom for decades. “It takes a native insect and makes it behave as if it were invasive,” Mike Lester, the Colorado state forester says.

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