Projects planned to get to root of wildfire problem

Posted: Thursday, February 17, 2005


  Flames candle skyward from spruce trees burning in a wildfire on the Kenai Peninsula a few years ago. Efforts to deal with beetle-killed trees continue. Clarion file photo by M. Scott M

Flames candle skyward from spruce trees burning in a wildfire on the Kenai Peninsula a few years ago. Efforts to deal with beetle-killed trees continue.

Clarion file photo by M. Scott M

The Spruce Bark Beetle Mitigation Project, entering its sixth year, has projects for the coming year that coordinators believe will continue to help make the community safer from the threat of wildfires.

Spruce bark beetles infest spruce trees with eggs. When the eggs hatch, the beetles eat the nutrient layer on the trees, killing them, said Mike Fastbend, project coordinator.

He said there is evidence of beetle damage on the Kenai Peninsula dating back to the middle of the 19th century. In the 1990s, a major outbreak devastated the peninsula, killing 90 percent of mature trees south of Kasilof, he said. In total, 1.4 million acres of trees were affected on the peninsula, he said.

In 1999, the federal government allocated $500,000 for the creation of an organization aimed at curbing the destruction of the beetles and coordinating efforts to keep the community safe from the wildfire hazards that come with it. Since then, the spruce bark beetle program has received more than $12 million to continue its mitigation projects, Fastbend said.

He said the huge amount of dead timber creates a high wildfire risk. Since its inception, the project has worked to clear roads of dead timber and sell it. They have worked with and coordinated the efforts of different agencies in cleanup and safety efforts, he said.

While the project was initially given a five-year lifespan, there have been more funds enabling it to continue its efforts. Fastbend said they have funding to continue through at least 2007. And there is a strong need for this organization to continue to coordinate mitigation efforts, he said.

This year, Fastbend said a major focus will be on helping communities develop their own wildfire protection plans.

The National Association of State Foresters, Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior agencies are developing a booklet to guide this process and aid various towns in applying for federal grants to implement the plans, he said.

Project organizers plan to continue to clear roads of dead timber and to aid areas still affected by the kill, he said.

When the project first started, there were 250 miles of road with beetle impact that needed treating, Fastbend said. The major areas have been cleared, but there are still roads that need attention and that continue to have new beetle kill, he said.

Reforestation projects in affected areas also will continue along with timber sales of the dead trees, he said.

Andy Mason, director of state and private forestry for the Forest Service's Alaska region, said many different agencies signed an agreement called All Lands-All Hands to cooperate on mitigating the wildfire risk. He said the agreement allows these agencies to set priorities and work on projects together, such as developing wildfire protection plans.

Jim Peterson, area forester with the Alaska Division of Forestry, said damage from the beetle kill has dropped off but still could pose a threat to some communities, such as Anchor Point, Ninilchik and Happy Valley.

The Division of Forestry, along with the mitigation project and other agencies, has continued its efforts to help make these communities safer, he said.

In the past, there have been door-to-door campaigns aimed at giving people information on how to protect their homes from fires, he said. There are plans to start this program again, he said.

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