Blazing: Defoliation sparks forest fire

By Mythili Rao

There's a theory about a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a storm a continent away. But here in Virginia, we've got our own twist on the story. A moth has flapped its gums, and caused a forest fire.

While this fire is tiny compared to fires raging in Colorado and Arizona, it has firefighters in Rockingham County working overtime.

Just northwest of Albemarle County, an 850-acre forest fire has blazed for more than a week. The blaze, near the summit of Rockytop Mountain in the Shenandoah National Park, was most likely caused by lightning late on June 20.

So why blame a moth?

The Park, explain forestry officials, is riddled with the result of the Gypsy Moths' work: stands of dead and dying oak trees languish in the wake of the moth caterpillars that have spent the last few years devouring their leaves.

"It's almost like putting a noose on the tree and just pulling it tighter and tighter," says John Miller, Chief of Forest Protection at the Virginia Department of Forestry. Nationwide defoliation caused by the pests regularly approaches two million acres annually. Rockingham and Shenandoah counties suffered an estimated 17,000 defoliated acres last year.

But it took the five 20-person crews fighting the fire four interstate teams and one Virginia team originally slated to travel to Colorado over a week to douse flames entirely. Flames charred more than a square mile of the Park.

Steep terrain and those dry oak trees make firefighting conditions hazardous in the Shenandoah. Dead standing trees, called snags, catch fire easily and can topple as they burn, endangering workers.

While the results of the moths' damage have been vexing to fire crews, other natural elements have been more cooperative.

A quarter of an inch of rain on June 25 helped workers temporarily rein in the fire and led them to cancel help from a fire-fighting helicopter. By June 29, the flames in the Park were contained.

But Miller predicts that the increase in Gypsy Moth outbreaks in recent years will continue killing trees– and fueling fires.

"It's going to continue to be a problem for us in the next few years," he says.

In the meantime, Gypsy Moths have reason to take cover. The Forest Service and Animal Plant Health Inspection Service have secured Congressional funding for their Slow the Spread (STS) program– a strategy that includes moth mating disruption.

The Virginia Department of Forestry reports that abundant rain in May lowered the number of forest fires this year to "only" 82 since May 1, down from 209 fires in the same time period last summer.