High Park fire

High Park fire

In a story so finely nuanced one can barely see the forest for the trees, the Denver Post’s Bruce Finley suggests that dead tree stands decimated by pine beetle infestations are not really a fire hazard.

It’s more of a climate thing: “CU study finds climate, not pine beetle, drives western U.S. wildfires.”

Writes Finley:

Wildfire follows hot wind and drought — but not the ravaging of mountain pine beetles, a new study finds.

Finley was reporting on a yet-to-be-published study by the University of Colorado that was paid for by the Obama administration and a foundation funded by Microsoft employees that likes to focus on climate change.

University of Colorado scientists investigated western U.S. forests burned over the past decade and compared these with forests infested with beetles.

They concluded beetle-killed forests are no more at risk of burning than healthy forests. The beetle outbreaks that since 1996 have turned 15 million acres of green forest gray from Alaska to Arizona don’t drive wildfire, said University of Colorado ecologist Sarah Hart, author of the study, which is poised for publication this week.

“Forest fuels may get drier as a result of fuels being dead from insect infestations. But the fuels in live forests are dry enough to promote fire. It is weather conditions — warm and dry conditions — that make the difference,” Hart said.

So let’s get this straight, fuel from live trees is just as likely to burn as fuel from dead trees, so long as the weather is hot and dry.

Duh. How much did this study cost? Seriously, we want our money back.

“And it is not going to make a huge difference in terms of the areas burning,” Hart said, noting that recent big fires in Colorado didn’t feed on beetle-killed trees.

Perhaps “recent big fires” didn’t feed on beetle-killed trees, but catastrophic fires in 2012 sure as Hell did. One woman died in the High Park fire that burned more than 87,000 acres and 200 buildings. According to Scientific American, it was the most destructive “in the state’s memory.

The High Park fire comes as a kind of second death for this stretch of the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest, where mountain pine beetles have held at epidemic levels for almost half a decade. Vast stretches of rust-red canopy, dry and primed for fire, are a testament to an infestation that has affected some 70 percent of the trees in the region.

Thanks to the beetles, there has been no shortage of ready fuel and the fire has spread quickly, whipped by sporadic winds from the southeast.

Finley’s story originally posted on Monday said “Forest Service officials declined to comment on the study,” but this was added to the bottom of the story some time later:

U.S. Forest Service research ecologist Matt Jolly said forest managers cannot ignore a tendency of beetle-killed trees to ignite quickly and burn at exceptionally high temperatures. “The way a fire burns is what affects the public,” he said.

That beetle-killed trees have a tendency to catch on fire and burn quickly is common sense. That healthy forests are also at risk of forest fire in dry and hot conditions is also a fact.

But the conclusion Finley seeks to draws is that it is pointless to clear beetle-infested trees from three million acres of Colorado’s beetle-killed national forests.

Thinning near people or to protect firefighters may make sense, Hart said. But big spending to purge remote dead trees, which can stay standing for up to 40 years, appears pointless, she said.

“We don’t need to mess with them if what we’re concerned about is the area burning.”

The trees are more likely to topple over after 20 years, but who’s counting, apparently.

The New York Times also picked up the story, which is based on a press release and not the actual study, and quotes the researchers stating that “policy discussions should focus on societal adaptation to the effects increasingly important driving factor: climate warming.”

Who didn’t see that coming?