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Bark Beetle Outbreaks Adding To Fire Risk


As an early and intense wildfire season is ramping up in Southern Oregon and Northern California, forest managers find themselves once again having to put more time and money into fire suppression, taking resources away from long term prevention programs.

The situation is putting federal forest officials behind the curve.

“Instead of the Forest Service being able to get ahead of an area that hasn't burned and get it down to a density or a species composition that would be resistant to the next wildfire, we have so many wildfires that we end up putting all of our efforts into after the fire has started,” says Todd Hamilton, a silviculturist with the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. “It's tough to put the effort in up front to get a forest into a condition that is less vulnerable to wildfires, bark beetles, drought and so forth.”

To help prevent wildfires over the long run, the Forest Service thins forests of smaller trees and undergrowth. This allows for the larger trees to get more water. When the trees have enough water and space, wildfires don't spread as quickly and are easier to control.

Thinning the forest can also help stop the Western bark beetle, which is spreading throughout the forests of Northern California. These beetles are killing millions of trees and increasing the likelihood of even more serious wildfires. The beetles interfere with the tree's ability to intake water, leaving them dry and brittle.

“When a fire is able to get into an area that is perhaps decimated by the Western bark beetle, those once live fuels are dead fuels, ready to take any heat source and ignite into a flame,” says Hamilton. “The reason that it accelerates the risk, or increases the risk, is that you now have an ignition source that is just ready to burn, because it’s all dry.”

The spread of these beetles is caused, in part, by poor forest management over the years. The overly dense West Coast forests allow for the bark beetles to not just take over weak trees, as they normally do, but also attack healthy trees. This is causing huge swathes of the forest to die, leaving them vulnerable to wildfires.

Sophia Prince is a reporter and producer for JPR News. She began as JPR’s 2021 summer intern through the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism. She graduated from the University of Oregon with a BA in journalism and international studies.