HOMER - If it's vegetable matter, it can ignite, and in that regard, fire has always threatened the Kenai Peninsula spruce forest and the communities built in and around it.
The spruce bark beetle infestation has killed an estimated 3.4 million acres of trees in Alaska over the past decade. And with that destruction, the fire danger is all the more real, forestry experts said at a symposium held in Homer last week.
"Of the 2 million acres (in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge), we view about 1.4 million acres-plus as burnable at some point in time," said Robin West, manager of the refuge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Some 400,000 acres on the refuge, about 28 percent, have been affected by the infestation.
"That's a fairly significant amount," he said.
The three-day symposium included presentations by experts in fire safety, forestry, entomology, ecology, land management and wood product development.
While fire safety issues consumed the largest portion of the conference, talks also turned to the socio-economic effects of the beetle infestation and to the possibilities for commercial uses of the millions of acres of dead and dying spruce covering much of the peninsula.
Fire is "a way of life" on the Kenai Peninsula, and important to the refuge for maintaining natural diversity, West said.
"But we've been kind of schizophrenic about it over the years," he said. "We light fires, we put fires out. Good fires, bad fires. Developing politically, socially, biologically and economically acceptable fire policies that you control has not been accomplished yet anywhere, in my mind. Yet it is an extremely important goal."
Of 1,879 fires started on the peninsula between 1980 and 2002, about 12 percent of those were in the refuge itself, West said.
"We've been very successful at suppression," he said.
In the future, there may be more emphasis on managing wildfires to benefit habitat and to create buffers around populated areas rather than attempting to extinguish them quickly, he said.
Still, letting large fires burn across vast acreage, despite the possible benefits, is just not socially acceptable, West said.
The millions of acres of fuel waiting for the right conditions of humidity, temperature and wind to permit a wildfire to spread essentially put every community on the peninsula at risk.
There are ongoing efforts by the refuge to lessen the danger of wildfire spreading into populated areas, by doing things like thinning stands to create buffer zones.
Other factors affecting the fire risk include the rapidly rising number of visitors to the peninsula and the refuge - about 2.5 million visitors come through the refuge annually, he said. That means a lot more potential for ignition sources.
Conference participants said the outlook for commercial use of the trees is limited. For several years, logs and chips made from beetle-damaged trees have been shipped to Asia over the Homer dock, but the chip operation recently ended.
Eini Lowell of the U.S. Forest Service said there were various uses for the trees as lumber, veneer, pulp and paper, and as house logs. But those depend heavily on the quality of the wood, which depends on how long it has been since beetles attacked the trees.
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