EDMONTON — Wildfire experts say the tiny mountain pine beetle is making forest fires more dangerous to fight and they warn the problem will get worse in coming years as millions of dry, dead trees fall to the ground in British Columbia 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. In one case flames ate up 100 square kilometres in just three hours.
Firefighters say the fires in beetle-killed trees burn so hot it’s like dealing with a forest of kiln-dried lumber. Dumping water and retardant on the flames doesn’t work very well. Crews are usually 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.”
The 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 is has spent about $600 million to fight wildfires in the last two years.
British Columbia is sharing the hard lessons its fire crews have learned over the last decade with Alberta, where the beetles are much less well established, but have still infested an estimated 3.2 million trees since 2006.
The main point being made by B.C. experts is that crews can’t fight a wildfire in beetle-killed timber the same way they would in a regular forest.
New tactics and safety procedures are needed for ground crews and aircraft that are tailored to how the dead pine trees deteriorate over time. Bark and tree canopies are the first to die and fires there spread very quickly and over long distances, which can put ground crews in danger.
Later, as the trunks of the dead trees dry out, fires burn more slowly, but much more intensely, creating updrafts that can put air tankers and helicopters at risk.
Experts warn the wildfire threat will get worse over a 20-year period as dead trees eventually 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.”
Alberta says 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. The province’s pine forest is less concentrated than in B.C. except for a sprawling area between the communities of Grande Prairie, Hinton and Slave Lake.
Last summer, some Alberta crews were on the fire lines in B.C. to help out and gained first-hand experience in beetle-killed timber zones. Those crews are now sharing that information with their colleagues.
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.”
For now, Alberta is focusing on prevention. For one thing, forestry companies have been encouraged to ramp up harvesting of beetle-infested pine rather than leave the dead timber to stand.
Brady Whittaker, executive director of the Alberta Forest Products Association, said cutting down the dead trees is the top priority for companies that operate in the beetle zone.
“We want to harvest these beetle-infested areas at an early stage to avoid forest fires that we have recently seen in British Columbia,” Whittaker said. “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.
The government is also promoting a voluntary program called FireSmart that encourages municipalities and rural homeowners to develop their own plans to remove dead trees and wood debris.
The B.C. experts are in demand at forestry conferences in other jurisdictions that are dealing with the threat of wildfires in forests killed by pine beetles.
Hicks has been invited to speak at conferences in Wyoming and Montana this coming spring. He is also going to brief a group of U.S. Forest Service fire crews from throughout the western states. His message about the hot, quick spreading fires will be the same.
“It is a new type of a fire out there for us and we just need to wrap our heads around it,” Hicks said. “Everybody needs to wrap their head around it. We need to think about different ways to suppress it.”