Canada — Wildfire experts say the pine beetle is making forest fires more dangerous to fight and warn it will worsen as millions of dead trees fall to the ground in B.C. and Alberta.
In recent years, fires have roared through dying and dead pine in the B.C. Interior. The blazes have forced thousands of people from their homes and put fire crews at risk.
The pine beetle has turned about one-quarter of B.C.’s pine forests brown, creating the need for new firefighting tactics, according to B.C. wildfire experts.
Firefighters say the fires in beetle-killed trees burn so hot it’s like dealing with a forest of kiln-dried lumber. Crews are often forced to retreat and build containment lines lighting their own fires to starve the oncoming flames of fuel.
“You have to burn it out. Fight fire with fire is our best tool right now,” said Dana Hicks, a fire management specialist with the B.C. Forest Service in Prince George.
“Any time you put fire on the land in conditions where fires are burning I always say you’re dancing with the devil, because things can go wrong.” Sharing lessons
The tiny beetles have already destroyed about 163,000 square kilometres of timber in B.C. an area more than five times the size of Vancouver Island. The province estimates it has spent about $600 million in the last two years to fight wildfires.
B.C. is sharing the hard lessons its fire crews have learned over the last decade with Alberta, where the beetles have infested an estimated 3.2 million trees since 2006.
B.C. experts said ground crews and aircraft need new tactics and safety procedures tailored to how the dead pine trees deteriorate over time.
Experts warned the wildfire threat will increase in the coming years as dead trees fall to the ground and leave the forest floor heaped with tinder-dry fuel.
“They need to closely look at their own training and safe-work directives and ensure they are considering this fuel type differently than any other fuel type they might be dealing with,” said Brian Simpson, director of B.C.’s wildfire management branch.
“It will present a higher risk to your firefighters and your communities.”
Mountain pine beetles like this one, shown in a photo from an electron microscope, have decimated forests in British Columbia and Alberta and increased the risks of forest fires, say B.C. firefighting crews.
Focus on prevention
Alberta said it is paying close attention, but doesn’t need a specific pine beetle wildfire strategy yet because it won’t face such a severe threat for a few years.
Mel Knight, Alberta’s minister of sustainable resource development, said there will be more training when the risk of volatile beetle-kill fires increases.
“They are hot and spread very, very, quickly so those kinds of issues need to be well understood by the people who are in the front lines,” he said.
“We are taking the situation extremely seriously. We most certainly will modify, if necessary, our training programs to be sure our people in Alberta will be properly trained.”
Alberta is also focusing on prevention, encouraging forestry companies to ramp up harvesting of beetle-infested pine rather than leave the dead timber to stand.
“We want to harvest these beetle-infested areas at an early stage to avoid forest fires that we have recently seen in British Columbia,” said Brady Whittaker, executive director of the Alberta Forest Products Association.
“Can we keep on top of it? It is certainly our goal, but it is a difficult goal.”
Over the last two years, the Alberta and federal governments have spent more than $5 million on removing dead trees from forest areas near communities and remote First Nations reserves.