The precise implications Montana's large number of beetle-infested forest acres have on wildfires are still being studied.
But one thing is clear: Drastic changes in wildfire behavior have been reported by fire crews working in infested areas, FireSafe Montana's Everett "Sonny" Stiger said Tuesday.
Stiger presented his talk "Wildland Firefighter Safety and the Mountain Pine Beetle" during the International Association of Wildland Firefighters conference being held in Missoula this week.
Stiger and his team have been gathering firefighter observations of blazes burning in stands killed by mountain pine beetles for several years. Crews have reported intense and quickly spreading fires that produce black smoke and tall flames.
One firefighter noted that it was "astounding" how fast fire in beetle-kill stands spreads. In one case, a fire burning in such a stand grew to three acres in two minutes and to more than 100 acres in the first hour.
Even fires in infested stands that haven't yet fallen into the "red-and-dead" stage are displaying these characteristics. Those "still green" stands have 50 percent less moisture than healthy forests, Stiger said.
"We need to make (fire crews) well aware this kind of spread is possible," he said.
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An increase in spot fires around beetle-infested areas has also been noted. Stiger's slides showed "profuse and long-range spots," where fire jumped across forests. Needles, bark and large pieces of infected trees that fall to the ground add ignition sources that can also affect a fire's behavior.
Better understanding what a fire will do and how beetle-kill stands will change wildfire factors is key to ensuring firefighter and public safety, FireSafe executive director Matt Wolcott said after Stiger's presentation.
Firefighter safety in these changing, intense situations is paramount to Stiger, who encouraged all conference attendees to get educated on fire behavior safety by taking classes and making sure information is effectively communicated within crews.
Each initial-attack crew assigned to a fire should have a member dedicated to studying initial fire behavior. The information must be reported to the entire crew, factoring in beetle-kill conditions, and be passed on to subsequent responding crews. This should be coupled with local incident support team plans for evacuation and population protection, Stiger said.
"Why do we do this? I think we need to put more emphasis on this to keep our guys safe, especially with the beetle-kill problem," he said.
Reporter Jenna Cederberg can be reached at 523-5241 or at email@example.com.