Don't blame the beetles

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Science  10 Oct 2014:
Vol. 346, Issue 6206, pp. 154-156
DOI: 10.1126/science.346.6206.154

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Tiny insects called bark beetles have devastated forests in western North America over the past decade. Life has drained from millions of hectares of forest so quickly that it seemed as if they had been abruptly unplugged, like a Christmas tree before bedtime. And many people have feared the infestation's fallout, worrying that the dry, beetle-killed trees would give birth to huge, damaging wildfires. Those concerns seemed to come true as spectacular blazes, such as the 2012 High Park Fire near Fort Collins, Colorado, incinerated forests, setting records for hectares burned and homes destroyed. Now, however, a growing body of research—including a study published last week—is challenging the widespread notion that beetle-killed forests are more vulnerable to more severe fires than those that have escaped infestation. The findings are highlighting the complex causes of western wildfires and raising new questions about the efficacy of some fire prevention policies, such as plans to remove beetle-killed trees from vast swaths of forest.