Beetle Battle Heats up

Pipestone Flyer

Repairing the saw while the fires are stoked

    “Hi,  It is one month ago today since the guys left for Fox Creek.  We are not hearing much from them and when we do talk on the phone it is brief. They are half way through the 2014 battle. Ian sounds exhausted but still positive.”  This is the recent message received from Carole Koop, mother of Ian Koop.

     Ian and three comrades packed up their gear on January 23rd, 2014 and headed off to the Fox Creek region in Alberta to join the 2014 battle against the pine beetle infestation. Crews from British Columbia and Ian’s crews from Alberta have been contracted to cut down and burn 24,000 trees in a project that is to be completed in two months.   Once the snow has melted fire bans are implemented because the risk of starting a forest fire and the 2014 battle ends. 

    Mountain pine beetles mass attack and kill mature pine trees within a year. In mid-summer, the adults bore into large host trees and lay eggs just under the bark. The larvae hatch and feed in the tissue between the bark and the wood.  Larvae develop into pupae, then to adult, and fly to the next host. The lifecycle normally takes one year to complete. The following spring, the needles of the attacked tree fade to yellow and then to reddish-brown. 

    The crews cut the infested trees and stack the wood into burn piles throughout the infested forest.  “Our sites are anywhere from 10 trees to 80 trees in one area. They (the beetles) are still going to spread,” explains Koop, “but every year we are gaining on them.” 

    Although the 4 young men are enjoying the experience, they have been faced with challenges as Ian’s cousin and fellow crew member describes. “Almost a month and Ian and I are now in a good rhythm. We got stuck yesterday on the quad in 4 feet of snow. After an hour and a half of shovelling and winching we were able to get out safe and sound. We will finish our package of 165 trees tomorrow in just under a week’s time and are looking forward to a new package.  The last tree bundle got done in the time allotted.”

     A typical day for the crew is to wake up at 5 am, drive an hour to the staging site, park the truck and quad into the bush in the dark. They check all the fires from the previous day to make sure they are completely burnt. “By then we have enough light to start a day of cutting, piling and burning the wood. Then in the evening we do all that in reverse and get back to our rooms around 7 – 7:30 pm.  Shower. Eat. Make a plan for the next day and start all over.”

     Alain is very proficient at making neat and packed piles. Once the pile is started, he sets fire to the first layer and the crew keeps adding logs to it. “One fire had 18 trees in it. That’s because they were close enough to be dragged to the same pile but it’s not always that easy.”  The piles burn throughout the night and when the wood piles do not burn completely, the workers have to do some restacking and light them up again the next day. This consumes valuable time that could be used to cut, pile and burn trees in new locations. The workers are paid by the number of trees cut and burnt. Since the beetles only infect tree trunks more than 4 inches in diameter the branches and thinner stems can be left on the forest floor to decay.  

    The crew welcomed a half a day they got off.  “The bundle for this last week was to be handed out and the bundle before that got finished at noon. Ian used that half day break to drive to Edmonton to get some supplies.  It took him until 1:00 am that night to unload the truck so it was a short night for him.”

     The adventure started off in a fiasco. “When Ian and Alain arrived in Fox Creek they learned their room was only available for one night so they had to put their supplies into storage the next morning before going to work. Then late that evening, when tired and hungry after a day’s hard work, they moved all their stuff into a room assigned to them during the day.”

    They bring all the chain saws in at night to sharpen them and also store their chain saw oil indoors.  The gravel road to the job site is topped with very sharp rocks thus the flat tires for Ian and other crews. They use snowshoes for part of the trek in and Ian broke one and so he’s busy trying to find a replacement. 

    Yesterday it was slashed tires and a snowmobile through the ice. Ian spent $850 on a Sunday service call to have someone come out to the job site to fix three tires which probably won’t stay fixed. He rescued the sled thanks to the aid of someone else. 

    The GPS signals the trees but it does not tell the guys how to find the exact locations. Last week Ian & Alain drove 5.5  km. weaving through the trees to find the site indicated by the GPS coordinates. Once the spot was found they could see that yes, there is a shorter way to get there and it should really only have been a 1 km trip. Valuable time wasted.

    An ongoing challenge is staying dry. The trees are heavily covered in snow. When Ian cuts a groove in the tree and then taps in wedges to direct its fall, he’s hit with an avalanche of snow.  On warm days he’s working in less outerwear and so he gets quite wet. Then because he’s soaked he gets cold.  Luckily there’s always a fire near.

    One night the hotel had no power.  An accident on the highway knocked out the power lines leaving the entire town in darkness. They used their head lamps for seeing in their hotel room and then went to a Chinese restaurant for a cold supper. They couldn’t use their boot dryers. Alain has long since been out of clean clothes and is now wearing some of Ian’s.”

     Ian Koop has become committed to the battle.  “When you are up there and see firsthand what the beetles are doing it is amazing. The infestation is in the early stages in Alberta and cutting and burning the infested trees when the pine beetle populations are still small will gradually win the battle.”

    The deadline for the work is March 27.

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