Among towering spruce trees, the people of the Kenai Peninsula have built their homes. The green-needled giants provided a wall, behind which residents found the privacy they sought. They were the shade children played under and the shelter for cow moose and their newly born calves. Branches were busy highways for squirrels and places where birds perched as they filled the air with song.
Then the spruce bark beetle arrived, claimed the lives of an estimated 1.3 million trees and changed everything, according to state Forestry personnel.
The deep green forests turned orange and then deathly gray. Spruce needles dropped like rain to the forest floor. The bark oozed and fell away. Trunks rotted and toppled easily in the wind. The seclusion the trees provided disappeared, exposing once-hidden homes to passersby.
And the focus of the peninsula's population shifted. Gone were innocent days of taking the lush forests for granted. Instead, groups busily studied the beetle invasion, anticipating the area to which it would eventually spread.
The tiny spruce bark beetle is the agent responsible for the massive changes underway on the Kenai Peninsula.
Clarion file photo
Safety officials warned against the dangers of fire. And the people of the peninsula hurried to salvage what could be used, clear away what couldn't and plant seedlings to fill the empty landscape left behind.
The good and the bad
When Rick and Jaye Northey built their cabin in the Caribou Hills in 1978, their valley was colored with shades of green.
"It was a very dense forest where we built," Rick Northey said. "The country was so pretty and pristine."
In the early 1990s, spruce bark beetles began making their presence known.
"I bought a small sawmill and started sawing up the stuff, and we built with that," said Northey, a retired firefighter. "We burn firewood, so we used up a considerable amount that way."
In the last two to three years, the Northeys have noticed a dramatic change.
Spruce trees provide a common backdrop for much of the Kenai Peninsula.
Clarion file photo
"The amount of trees rotting and blowing down in these windstorms has increased," Northey said. "Every time we get a good heavy wind, we spend a good time cleaning trails just so we can get out to the road and be able to get water and get to town."
Some of the changes are a mixed blessing.
"We couldn't see the inlet when we bought our property," he said. "Now we have a good view of Iliamna, and we're starting to get a view of Redoubt.
"We like having the view, but it's just like a big giant hand came and knocked the trees down. It's horrible."
With his firefighting background, Northey is well aware of the risks posed by the dead timber. They've cleared the trees 300 feet away from their home. They've also planted a lawn in the area to deter the growth of taller natural grass. The reason is twofold.
"First, it helps us keep an eye for wildland fires, and second, it helps us keep track of the brown bear," Northey said. "Plus we just kind of enjoy the greenery."
A brush with fire
After Michael Carpenter saw fire tear across his three acres in northern California, he headed north, settling on 2 1/2 acres of land in the Anchor Point area in 1995.
Jolean Labs and Christi Craig rebuild kenai Peninsula forests one tree at a time. The teens were part of a youth camp that planted more than 90,000 trees near the Caribou Hills last summer.
Photo by McKibben Jackinsky
"It had a lot of spruce trees, nice looking ones," Carpenter said. "But not anymore. The beetle killed them all. The land looks like a stump patch."
Like the Northeys, Carpenter used the trees for firewood and turned some into lumber.
"It's been a hard thing because we lost our privacy," he said. "But you either cut them down and clean it up or you have a big mess. They fall over and then there's the fire danger."
Carpenter has taken to encouraging a new generation of trees.
"I've been planting for the last three years, ever since I started cleaning the dead trees off," he said, bragging that some of the seedlings he planted are nearing four feet tall.
Ben and Tammy Self, relatives of Carpenters, experienced the same California fire.
"It came within four feet of our house and burned down the shop," said Tammy Self of the 65,000-acre fire that began with a cigarette someone thoughtlessly flicked into the grass.
Ben and Tammy Self take their beetle-killed tres and recycle them into a new home.
Photo courtesy of Tammy Self
The Self family -- Ben and Tammy, Ben's mother, and two brothers and sisters-in-law -- bought 12 spruce-covered acres six miles south of Ninilchik in 1996. When it became evident the trees were dying, they purchased a sawmill and turned the trees into rough cut lumber used in the construction of four family homes on their 12-acre spread.
"It's not as pretty as it was," Self said. "Can we see the neighbors? Yup, darn it. We can actually see our brother-in-law now. We couldn't see his house before.
"We moved out here to be secluded, to have our privacy and our own property, but now we don't have the privacy that we were hoping for."
Edna Steik has lived on the same acre of land for 37 years.
From her living room windows, she looks down on Ninilchik River as it meanders toward Cook Inlet. From her kitchen, she now has an unshielded view of Oil Well Road.
Steik keeps a sensible attitude about the loss of privacy.
"There were big spruce around here, but they had to come down," she said. "I had it done to protect my house."
As trees have been removed from land owned by Cook Inlet Region Inc., Dean Kvasnikoff, owner of Alaska Native Resource Consultants Inc. of Ninilchik, organized a reforestation effort that involved hundreds of 14- to 18-year-olds.
Beginning in 1999, he worked with Cook Inlet Region Inc., Cook Inlet Tribal Council and Southcen-tral Foundation to put together a youth camp located on the edge of the Caribou Hills. That year, the young campers planted approximately 60,000 seedlings.
"Last summer they planted in excess of 90,000 trees," said Kvasnikoff of the effort to reforest CIRI's land. "They're shooting for 100,000 this year."
The experience prompted one camper from Anchorage to consider his ties to the peninsula and think about his future.
"My family comes from Ninilchik," Justin Hatton said.
After speaking at length about the relationship between trees and humans and the beauty of the rolling hills around him, Hatton said, "I'm going to live here when I retire."
Knowing the risks
Calling attention to safety risks increased by the Kenai's dead and rotting trees were Alaska Division of Forestry Logistics Coordinator Tom Marok, Fire Management Officer Ric Plate and Fire Preven-tion Officer Sharon Kilbourn-Roesch.
"It isn't a question of if a fire will happen, but when it will happen," Marok said of the high likelihood a wildfire will strike the Kenai Peninsula.
Kilbourn-Roesch provided a list of Alaska communities at risk from wildfire. The 39 communities most at risk in the state include Anchor Point, Clam Gulch, Cooper Landing, Funny River, Happy Valley, Homer, Kalifornsky, Kasilof, Kenai, Nikiski, Ninilchik, Salamatof and Soldotna.
"Now is an opportune time to use heavy equipment to remove trees without causing a lot of damage," said Marok, referring to current weather conditions.
Describing defensible space as a "prepared area around a structure that is designed to resist wildland fire and allow safe access and egress for firefighting personnel and their equipment," Marok urged a minimum 30-foot space between homes and trees.
In addition to this safe area, he also suggested:
n Keeping firewood and other materials that could ignite a safe distance from the structure;
n Using construction materials that are not easily ignitable;
n Covering vents in eaves and gables with screens to prevent hot embers from entering the structures; and
n Boxing in decks and stairways to keep fire from spreading underneath and reaching the structure.
Plate recommended "pruning ladder fuels" -- removing tree limbs up six to eight feet above the ground -- and cutting back tall, dried grass as the Northeys have done.
"There aren't enough firefighting resources to do all of it ourselves," Plate said, recommending homeowners have firefighting tools handy, including hoses, axes and shovels.
The biggest obstacle keeping people from taking the risk of fire seriously is an attitude of "This will never happen to me," Marok said.
However, fire is nothing new Alaska.
In 1996 alone, Forestry's Kenai-Kodiak Area office responded to 101 wildland fires. The Hidden Creek Fire near Skilak Lake affected a 5,200-acre area and the Crooked Creek Fire south of Tustumena Lake covered an area of more than 17,000 acres. The Millers Reach fire in the Big Lake area also occurred during the summer of 1996 and destroyed more than 400 structures.
"Lots of homes were lost because the trees were so thick and the firefighters couldn't get in," Marok said.
Kilbourn-Roesch is involved in organizing a FireWise communities workshop to be held in Kenai in April.
The workshop seeks to improve safety through shared responsibilities, create partnerships and pull together a cross-section of community representatives.
During summer 2000, the Kenai Fire Department focused on areas at risk in the Kenai area through Project Impact.
"In some of the community meetings, people were saying that the reason they bought their lots was because of the trees," said Scott Walden, acting chief of the Kenai Fire Department. "Even though the trees were dying, they didn't want them cut down. There was the misconception that they'd be living on clear-cut pieces of property.
"We set up demonstration projects across the city," Walden said. "And the people understood that they were only being asked to get rid of the hazard trees. When they saw the demonstration project, they got on board."
John and Helen Baranger, who have lived in Kenai's Inlet Woods area for eight years, were part of the demonstration project.
The Barangers have a deep appreciation for the environment. The landscaping they've done around their home was designed with the natural setting in mind, and Helen Baranger's efforts won her the Kenai Chamber of Commerce greenery award.
"That's my hobby, the yard," she said.
But the Barangers have watched the beetles rob the neighborhood of its greenery.
"The trees were absolutely infested and rotting," Baranger said.
But there's a healthier look to the neighborhood now, thanks to the Kenai Fire Department and Project Impact.
The Barangers had approximately 10 to 15 trees cut down, which provided firewood for anyone who was interested in hauling it away.
"If a fire had started in here, they probably couldn't have saved any of the homes," Baranger said. "But they did a beautiful job. Every time I see a fireman, I want to hug him."
Although the loss is still new, Baranger said in a few years "nobody will ever know the difference, except I can see my neighbor now. I couldn't see her before."
Baranger sees positive changes, as well.
"I don't know if it made any difference, but I had so many low-bush cranberries this year, I couldn't pick them fast enough," she said. "Maybe it was all the sunshine. Who knows."
Mindful of keeping a natural theme in her gardening, the award-winning gardener has found a good use for the remaining tree stumps: she has flowerpots on them.
And then there's the promise of a greener tomorrow.
"There's a lot of new trees that will come up now," Baranger said. "In fact, I planted some new trees myself. They're all over the place and they're doing beautifully.
"I might not be around, but the next generation will have them. They're here."
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