Does wildfire likelihood increase following insect outbreaks in conifer forests?

TitleDoes wildfire likelihood increase following insect outbreaks in conifer forests?
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsMeigs, GW
Secondary AuthorsCampbell, JL
Tertiary AuthorsZald, HSJ
Subsidiary AuthorsBailey, JD, Shaw, DC, Kennedy, RE
Start Page118
Date Published07/2015
Keywordsforest health, insects and fire, technical reports and journal articles
Although there is acute concern that insect-caused tree mortality increases the likelihood or severity of subsequent wildfire, previous studies have been mixed, with findings typically based on stand-scale simulations or individual events. This study investigates landscape- and regional-scale wildfire likelihood following outbreaks of the two most prevalent native insect pests in the US Pacific Northwest (PNW): mountain pine beetle (MPB; Dendroctonus ponderosae) and western spruce budworm (WSB; Choristoneura freemani). We leverage seamless census data across numerous insect and fire events to (1) summarize the interannual dynamics of insects (1970–2012) and wildfires (1984–2012) across forested ecoregions of the PNW; (2) identify potential linked disturbance interactions with an empirical wildfire likelihood index; (3) quantify this insect-fire likelihood across different insect agents, time lags, ecoregions, and fire sizes. All three disturbance agents have occurred primarily in the drier, interior conifer forests east of the Cascade Range. In general, WSB extent exceeds MPB extent, which in turn exceeds wildfire extent, and each disturbance typically affects less than 2% annually of a given ecoregion. In recent decades across the PNW, wildfire likelihood does not consistently increase or decrease following insect outbreaks. There is evidence, however, of linked interactions that vary across insect agent (MPB, WSB), space (ecoregion), and time (interval since insect onset). Specifically, in most cases following MPB activity, fire likelihood is neither higher nor lower than in non-MPB-affected forests. In contrast, fire likelihood is lower following WSB activity across multiple ecoregions and time lags. In addition, insect-fire likelihood is not consistently associated with interannual fire extent, suggesting that other factors (e.g., climate) control the disproportionately large fire years accounting for regional fire dynamics. Thus, although both bark beetles and defoliators alter fuels and associated fire potential, the windows of opportunity for increased or decreased fire likelihood are too narrow—or the phenomena themselves too rare—for a consistent signal to emerge across PNW conifer forests. These findings suggest that strategic plans should recognize (1) the relative rarity of insect-fire interactions and (2) the potential ecosystem restoration benefits of native insect outbreaks, when they do occur.