Beetle epidemic raises fire threat

Officials look to clear beetle-infested pine trees before next wildfire

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Pine beetle epidemic

Diann Ritschard, public affairs specialist with the National Forest Service, explains the pine beetle epidemic and how it is raising the wildfire threat.

Diann Ritschard, public affairs specialist with the National Forest Service, explains the pine beetle epidemic and how it is raising the wildfire threat.

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Dead mountain pine beetles are displayed on the stump of a lodgepole pine tree killed by the beetles in the Routt National Forest on Friday.

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Dead mountain pine beetles are displayed by Diann Ritschard in the Routt National Forest on Friday. The beetles are threatening the existence of millions of lodgepole pine trees in Colorado.

— Along a hillside in the Routt National Forrest's Seedhouse Corridor, splashes of red and gray emerge from a large canvas of green.

The colors act as a before-and-after warning of the effects wrought by the mountain pine beetle, an insect the size of a grain of rice that is threatening to kill millions of Colorado lodgepole pine.

Healthy green pine needles turn red as the beetle infests the inner layers of bark - cutting off water and nutrients to the tree. As the red needles fall, the dead, bare pine adds one more gray addition to the landscape.

At a dispersed campsite a few miles west of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, Diann Ritschard, public affairs specialist with the National Forest Service, examines a group of pines, looking for signs of beetle infestation.

A yellow, wax-like substance collects in tubular masses from many of the trees, most of which are dead.

"This tree was trying to defend itself from the pine beetles," she said. "The tree knew it was under attack, and it tried to push out the bugs with these pitch tubes."

Hope for the future

According to the National Forest Service, more than 250,000 pines are infected with the pine beetle in the Routt National Forest, and approximately 1.2 million pines are infected statewide.

Ritschard said a decade-long drought, along with the forest's natural cycle of thinning itself of older trees, contributed to the recent beetle epidemic. But not all pines are at risk. As Ritschard looks through the forest for infected trees, she passes dozens of shoulder-high, healthy pines.

"The larger trees give off a pheromone that attracts the beetles, so the small trees are saved and grow up to be the next forest," she said. "We are not going to loose all of our pines, and we will still have a lush forest of spruces and firs."

Citizens can protect their trees with chemicals that can be purchased from Sol Solutions and Western Tree Management in Steamboat Springs, Ritschard said.

Threat to homeowners

Don Carroll, deputy incident commander for the Colorado Beetle Cooperative, told a group of more than 30 state and local emergency management officials Thursday in Steamboat Springs that the beetle epidemic is more of a threat to homeowners than the forests.

"This is a cyclical process where nature thins the forests," he said. "The beetle is going to do what the beetle does. Humans may not like to look at dead trees, but they bought a house up in the mountains for the view."

The threat of forest fires, not the unsightly landscape, should be more of a concern for homeowners, according to John Twitchell, district forester with the Colorado State Forest Service.

"You tailor your future forests to your future needs," he said. "If we keep moving into the forests, we need to mitigate the risks of forest fires."

Brandon Everett, assistant squad foreman with the National Forest Service, thinned a small patch of service land at the Hinman campsite Friday, just a few short yards from a private residence.

"When you have a dispersed campsite, a home and a public access road all in one area, the impact of a forest fire is substantial," said Everett as his crew harvested dozens of beetle infested pines into firewood and cleared the undergrowth of fallen trees.

"We are creating a defensible space where the forest comes close to the urban interface."

Ritschard found no beetles Friday, but the signs of infestation were everywhere.

"The beetles must have already flown from the trees," said Ritschard, who noted beetle larva hatch from the pine bark in June. "But woodpeckers have been at these trees picking out the bugs. As the beetle population grows, so do the woodpeckers'. It's wonderful, like a circle of life."

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