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Beetle-kill trees fueling Colorado wildfires

DENVER -- The mountain pine beetle has had a major impact throughout Colorado, killing hundreds of millions of trees.

While the epidemic does not increase the risk of wildfires, it impacts the severity of them.

The Colorado State Forest Service's annual report estimates one in every 14 standing trees in Colorado is dead. That's 834 million trees, and that number has gone up 30 percent in the past seven years.

"The condition of our forests and drought over the last 20 years or so has really allowed it to gain ground and cause a lot of tree mortality in our pine forests," said Boyd Lebeda, a district forester with the Colorado State Forest Service.

Researchers believe the damage left by the bark beetles has not necessarily increased wildfires, but has increased the severity.

"It produces more smoke when it does burn, there's more heat released and it takes longer for it to burn down," Lebeda said. "It's harder for firefighters to put out."

The Peak 2 Fire near Breckenridge is dealing with the problem firsthand. And officials recognize not only the difficulties of putting out a fire in a beetle-kill area, but also the dangers.

"This area as many of you know is full of beetle-kill, mixed Conifer fuels," Ross Wilmore with the U.S. Forest Service said at a public meeting regarding the Peak 2 Fire.

"Trees can come down without warning. We've had a lot of firefighter fatalities in the past with trees coming down and hitting people so we're trying to take this really slow and easy."

Researchers say the bark beetles and wildfires are a part of the ecosystem, but the concern is in areas that we are trying to protect.

"Communities have been working hard to reduce fuels to address mountain pine beetle in the proximity of their homes," Lebeda said. "That's the case in many places."

Researchers believe the mountain pine beetle epidemic is over in Colorado.

But just as that comes to an end, another beetle is causing problems. The spruce beetle is on the rise in Colorado, as researchers are seeing more and more trees impacted statewide.