Soldotna moves in on beetle kill fire hazard

Dead spruce behind Kenai Peninsula College. (courtesy of Mitch Michaud)

Soldotna is waiting on a federal grant to remove beetle kill trees that could fall and pose a fire risk. But the beetles themselves aren’t so patient.

“Needless to say, the wheels of government don’t work as fast as the beetles do,” said local forester Mitch Michaud, who’s helping Soldotna forge a path forward among a persisting spruce bark beetle problem.

When spruce bark beetles eat away at trees, they make them weaker and more prone to toppling over.

What concerns Soldotna is that the brush from dead trees could become a fire hazard. The city successfully applied for a grant last year from FEMA to mitigate that risk, totalling around $300,000.

But between hurricanes, wildfires and the pandemic, FEMA’s been busy. The agency also has to do an environmental assessment before sending funds over.

Michaud’s helping the city scout trees that need attention now. He identified some at Aspen Park that the city should remove using its own funds while it waits for FEMA.

In the meantime, the Parks and Recreation Department will keep tabs on other trees in other parks that could be high risk.

“We’re generally waiting,” said John Czarnezki, Soldotna’s director of economic development and planning. “Unless we get these situations, like at Aspen Park, where we’ve got some higher-risk trees that could damage neighboring properties, could damage our city infrastructure.”

“And we’ve got a wellhouse there, we’ve got fences, we’ve got a building, we’ve got a significant investment in that park that we’re trying to protect,” he added.

Spruce bark beetles are tiny and lay eggs in host trees between May and July. Beetle outbreaks are cyclical and typically track with the life cycles of spruce trees.

But outbreaks become more likely when trees are unhealthy. And lately, both drought and fire have ramped up in Southcentral Alaska.

“And that was something that we had to show the folks at FEMA in our grant,” Michaud said. “Was that we’re looking at beetle intervals occurring every 10 years.”

Beetles typically stick to forests, since city trees are well tended. But Michaud said drought has made it so even the hearty trees in city parks are vulnerable.

“The ones at my home, I lost five,” he said. “And I had survived every beetle attack.”

Michaud’s looking at Aspen Park because of how quickly trees have been dying there.

Not all the trees at the park are at risk of falling. The area is relatively sheltered from the wind.

But those with advanced decay are making him nervous. They could topple tomorrow.

“I have to guard any answer I give, saying any of these trees could fall down at any time,” Michaud said. “So there is no insurance of that. Likewise, in a natural forest, you’ll have beetle kill trees that will stay up for, like, almost 10 years.

Tree removal is one part of the project FEMA will fund. The city is also looking at trimming trees to reduce risk of fire spread.

Soldotna’s plan will probably change before the grant is finalized.

“FEMA’s aware that our trees are continuing to die and that there will need to be some adjustments to our plan,” Michaud said.

The plan also doesn’t account for private property. Czarnezki said they’ve been looking for separate funding for that.

“And that has been much harder to come by,” he said.

Soldotna heard from FEMA last week that grant funds could take 12 to 18 months to arrive. Once the project is underway, the city will look for ways to revegetate parks that have been affected.

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