Insects turn healthy forests into tinderboxes ready to burn

Beetle mania hurts

Posted: Friday, July 22, 2005


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  A single spruce bark beetle appears incapable of harm, but the species has destroyed millions of acres of forested land in Southcentral Alaska. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Colorless spruce trees killed by an outbreak of spruce bark beetles stand out in a mixed forest near Sterling. In many spruce forests, only hardwoods are green.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Editor's note: The following story is the fourth in a series examining wildfires on the Kenai Peninsula. On Sunday, the Clarion will show through photos how managing a wildfire can be hard, dirty work.

With wildfires raging on the Kenai Peninsula, fire specialists and crews are wading into some fairly new territory.

Feeding many wildfires' monstrous appetites this year are dead trees killed by spruce bark beetles, which experts say is good ecologically but also a reminder of the danger of beetle kill trees.

Spruce bark beetles infest spruce trees with eggs. When the eggs hatch, the beetles eat the nutrient layer on the trees killing them. It is an infestation that spread across the peninsula in the 1990s killing 90 percent of the mature spruce trees — or 1.4 million acres — south of Kasilof.

Much of the area that is burning in the Fox Creek Fire south of Tustumena Lake was heavily affected by beetle kill, said Tom Kempton, fire information officer for the fire.

In fact, many of the fires around the peninsula this summer have burned through beetle-kill areas, said Ric Plate, fire management officer for the Alaska Division of Forestry's Kenai and Kodiak area.

Plate said fire managers are still learning how a wildfire in this situation will respond, he said. He added that burning the beetle kill is generally good. It regenerates the forest, develops more wildlife habitat and reduces future risk of wildfires in the area, he said.

"Fire is one of nature's tools for doing that," Plate said. "From the fire end, it's good to see that stuff burning up."

One thing crews are learning, he said, is that wildfires in spruce bark beetle kill areas burn with more intensity and shoot embers into the air allowing for rapid spread of the fire. In the case of the Tracy Avenue Fire in May near Homer, he said the fire burned the treetops. Later, he said, the fire returned and burned the ground material. He added it is rare when a fire does that.

"It really heightens people's awareness that these trees could burn," said Roberta Wilfong, program manager for the Spruce Bark Beetle Mitigation Program. "We expected to have forest fires."


A single spruce bark beetle appears incapable of harm, but the species has destroyed millions of acres of forested land in Southcentral Alaska.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The program has received about $12 million in federal funds to map the vegetation of the peninsula to discover the beetle-kill areas. The program used that information to remove dead trees aimed at preventing wildfires that are a threat to people's homes, Wilfong said. In addition, it helps coordinate community wildfire protection plans, she said.

Wilfong said the infestation has slowed in recent years because the beetles "have eaten themselves out of house and home." She added that it is still active in Kenai, Soldotna and Nikiski and other parts of the northern peninsula in certain areas.

Right now the program is focusing a lot of its efforts on clearing dead trees from major escape routes, such as the Sterling Highway, she said, adding this is called the wildland urban interface.

She said wildfires in the refuge have been helpful because it is burning off some of the dead trees. However, residents still need to focus on clearing the dead trees away from their homes.

For more information on how to keep your home safe from wildfires and on spruce bark beetle kill, call the mitigation program at 260-6202. Information can be found online at www.borough.ken or at

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