Ritter: Beetle infestation could up Colorado fire danger

Steven K. Paulson
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
Aspen Times fileApproaching the Gore Range, the signs of the spreading effect of the mountain pine beetle infestation is evident. It causes the needles to turn red before they fall off. The beetle infestation could make parts of the state more prone to wildfires this season.

CENTENNIAL, Colo. ” Northwest Colorado and the Continental Divide could face a higher risk of wildfires this season because of the pine beetle infestation, Gov. Bill Ritter said Friday.

At their annual preseason fire briefing, Ritter and local and federal officials said the Front Range and Eastern Plains are facing an average fire season.

Federal fire managers said above-normal precipitation in April eased early spring fire potential in eastern Colorado and delayed the start of the fire season at higher elevations.

However, they say a long-term drought could contribute to brief periods of above-normal fire potential in June.

The pine beetle epidemic, which hit Colorado in 1996, has spread to more 3,100 square miles in the state. U.S. Forest Service officials have predicted that by the end of 2013, beetles will kill most of the state’s lodgepole pines ” the predominant pine at higher elevations.

The beetles burrow into trees to lay eggs, leaving behind a deadly fungus that rots out trees and makes them vulnerable to fire.

Ritter said Colorado Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet told him the federal government will give the state $12 million for 12 projects to remove dried-out or fallen trees and vegetation across the state. Ritter said he does not have a list of projects but expects to announce them as soon as the list is complete.

State Forester Jeff Jahnke said removing potential fuel for wildfires will help protect crews if a major blaze breaks out.

“Working among dense standing and falling dead trees poses the greatest threat to firefighter safety in beetle-kill areas,” Jahnke said.

This year’s wildfire preparedness plan for Colorado calls for having three single-engine air tankers, 10 fire engines and three fire crews, with volunteers from the Department of Corrections on standby.

Last year, Colorado’s five largest wildfires burned nearly 56,000 acres, destroyed 28 buildings and caused $1.5 million in damage.