BOZEMAN - Swaths of forests killed by mountain pine beetles may not be as prone to massive fires as many previously assumed, a conclusion drawn by researchers from the University of Wisconsin and Yellowstone National Park.
The Bozeman Chronicle reports the researchers surveyed trees killed by beetle infestations that can leave red swaths of destruction.
Using computer models, they found dying and dead stands of trees might actually be less susceptible to major fires than lush and green stands, since there is less fuel to burn.
Wisconsin researcher Martin Simrad says the notion of increased fire risk after a beetle outbreak appears to be reasonable, but said it didn't appear to pan out.
"If you want to build a campfire, you don't use green needles, you use red needles," he said. "But it seems when we are talking forest-wide fires, it's a completely different scale."
Yellowstone National Park vegetation management specialist Roy Renkin also said beetle-killed forests have long been assumed tinderboxes, but that in his 32 years at Yellowstone, "observations never quite met with the expectation."
Elected officials in the West sometimes contend beetle-killed forests are fire hazards and argue that forest managers should allow more harvesting of trees.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., has promoted this contention as he touts his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.
"The bill emphasizes the harvest of ready-to-bun beetle-killed trees near Montana communities," Tester's office has said of his bill, which would mandate 10,000 acres of logging annually for 10 years.
A Tester spokesman said the senator's office was aware of the Wisconsin study, but said these latest findings didn't undermine Tester's bigger contention that Montana's forests are susceptible to fire.
"Wildfire still is and will continue to be a significant challenge facing our national forests unless we address it," Aaron Murphy said in a statement. "Jon's bill addresses this challenge through a carefully balanced plan put forward by a lot of Montanans to restore our forests and watersheds while creating new wilderness and recreation areas, and jobs in Montana."
Simrad emphasized his study doesn't suggest beetle-killed forests don't burn. In dry conditions, he said, they are just as likely to burn as green forests are.
But under "intermediate" fire conditions, models did show them less combustible.
The research took place across Yellowstone and Bridger-Teton National Forest.