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Study: Bark beetles damage may fuel wildfires

By Vanessa de la Viña, vanessa@kvia.com
Published On: Jul 02 2012 07:03:48 PM CDT
Updated On: Jan 17 2014 04:09:08 PM CST

ABC-7's Vanessa de la Vina reports.

ALBUQUERQUE -

New Mexico is still fighting and recovering from two record-breaking fires that burned thousands of acres and destroyed hundreds of homes.

New research suggests tiny bark beetles may have played a role in feeding these fires.

In January, state forest officials worried about thousands upon thousands of acres of trees dying in the Lincoln National Forest because of a bark beetle infestation.

Now it seems dead trees like those may have helped fuel some of the most destructive fires in our state's history.

"Everything's dry. It's like having super dry kindling wood," New Mexico State University Agriculture Agent Jeff Anderson told ABC-7.

Anderson said the dry conditions in the state combined with the masses of trees eaten by bark beetles creates a playground for wildfires.

"With so much of it, once you get a fire going, the flames going in a forest, they're going to just jump around and then they feed on themselves," Anderson said.

The tiny bugs have infested more than 40-million acres of trees across the country.

Some of this year's fires have already burned through areas affected by these bugs.

"Once the bark beetles are in, they're protected underneath the bark. Birds can't get at them. Nothing can get at them. So you've got bark beetles running wild underneath the bark," Anderson said.

A study by the U.S. Forest Service found that the needles of beetle-killed trees have ten times less moisture than healthy trees. That causes the trees to burn three times faster and more intensely.

"It's not like having a dry chunk of timber logs sitting there, which, like I said, is more difficult to get started. You have now kindling wood. A lot of little pieces, little separations, and fire can travel much more quickly through the whole works," Anderson said.

Anderson said there is no easy way to fight these bugs. The proper treatment to kill bark beetles has to be applied to the entire tree from top to bottom.

"You can't do that in a forest situation. It's just too much. It would be millions, probably hundreds of millions of dollars to treat," Anderson said.

The federal government is spending about $100 million a year as part of a five-year strategy to bring down these beetles. The goal is to treat more than 2.5 million acres over the five year span. That's only a fraction of the land that's been devastated by bark beetles in the past few years.

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