ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Forest and firefighting specialists say the spruce bark beetle epidemic is expected to slowly die out, probably within the next few years. But they say its effects will impact Alaska for years to come.
Millions of acres of spruce trees have been killed across the Kenai Peninsula and sections of the state's Southcentral region, but that won't be the end of it.
The impacted areas can expect at least a generation of wildfire hazards along with some other long-term effects, according to the specialists who spoke at a spruce bark beetle workshop in Anchorage over the weekend.
''The ecological impacts could be decades if not a century,'' said John See, a state forestry coordinator.
The impact of the fire danger will be felt over a shorter period, See said. But new types of flammable vegetation are entering the forest and that could mean a long-term danger if communities don't prepare, he said.
Some of the effects won't be negative, said Mike Fastabend, bark beetle coordinator for the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
Some homeowners, for example, might appreciate the views that open when a nearby stand of beetle killed-trees falls or is removed. And some won't object to the new plants and birds and other animals inhabiting a forest cleared of mature spruce, he said.
But the impacts of wildland fires will be mostly bad. Whether the beetle-killed trees remain standing or if they fall -- which most do within 10 years of being attacked -- they contribute to a more destructive fire than do living trees, Fastabend said.
The increased fire hazard will cost communities millions, whether the money is spent upfront to remove the trees or later to fight a blaze and replace destroyed homes, he said.
''Every dollar spent in mitigation beforehand will save tens of dollars in (fire) suppression and hundreds of dollars in potential (lost) property values,'' Fastabend said.
Within the Anchorage Bowl, the fire danger is most acute on the city's Hillside neighborhood. Mature spruce trees are dead across some 100,000 acres, much of it close to subdivisions with narrow streets and little water.
Jan Jones, who lives on the city's East side, said the workshop taught her about creating a ''defensible space'' -- a landscaped buffer that would keep a wildland fire from reaching her home and allow firefighters room to battle a blaze, which she feels is inevitable.
''It's not if. It's when,'' Jones said. ''We need to make sure the asphalt (roof) shingles are new, not dry and brittle. I'm looking into other types of roof covering, too, and making sure the paint is fresh.''
The Kenai Peninsula, where the bark beetle epidemic peaked several years ago, has lost more than a million acres of spruce, across entire valleys and hillsides.
''The next generation will certainly be working at these same issues,'' Fastabend said. ''It's a long-term, multimillion-dollar thing.''
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