The Fort McMurray wildfire. Photo: Wikipedia
20 Jun 2018

Pine beetles: A new type of wildfire threat uncovered in Canada and northern US

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Few Canadians will ever forget the devastating forest fires of 2016 which destroyed the capital of the Canadian oil fields, Fort McMurray, causing damages worth 4 billion Canadian dollars and striking against the economic backbone of the country. Now the infamous Pine Beetle is a newly discovered  threat to the increasingly dry forest lands.

Video: (Above) CBC News Edmontons special coverage of the fallout from the Fort McMurray fires. The fire involved large parts of the city, in some cases destroying as much as 80% of neighbourhoods, leaving residents to flee for their lives with only one major highway leading south, as flames were threatening to engulf the roadways as well.

With hundreds of unsettled insurance claims from the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire still unresolved as of late last month, many Alberta residents are still worrying about wildfire risks in their own backyard.

The Canadian Press recently reported that as of May 10, some 900 insurance claims were outstanding from the Fort McMurray fire, which destroyed the majority of the city´s buildings and infrastructure.

Alberta’s Minister of Finance and president of the Treasury Board, Joe Ceci, said in a press release May 23 that there has been some confusion regarding the extension of claims for those affected by the wildfire, which cost insurers nearly $4 billion CDN. (Around 3 billion Euros / US Dollars )

While the claims process for Canada’s costliest natural disaster ever is slowly coming to an end, the wildfire risk is far from over.

British Columbia, the most heavily forested province in Canada, has also suffered ravaging forest fires which have been impossible to put out during recent years, and the dry and hot weather in the province is currently likely to set the stage for yet another difficult wildfire season if considerable rainfall doesn´t come soon. 

 

Dendroctonus_ponderosae, aka Mountain Pine Beetle. Photo: Wikipedia
Dendroctonus Ponderosae, aka Mountain Pine Beetle. Photo: Wikipedia

Western Canada and Northern US residents are again worried about wildfire risks in their backyard, this time due to the spread of the mountain pine beetle, according to a report, Building Resilience to the Economic Threat of Invasive Species, released last week.

Written by students from Johns Hopkins University, the report was funded by the Swiss Re Institute and examines the economic costs and policy gaps in managing invasive species in Canada and the United States.

The report explained that the mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus_ponderosae) infects pine trees and turns them red, leaving behind a striking trademark on their infected forests.

The invasive species has brought down more than 16 million hectares of forests in British Columbia and is likely to spread to new areas due to the changing climate.

“However, there is much less conclusive research on the relationship between invasive bugs (and the trees they kill) and wildfires,” the report said.

Scientists agree that the pine beetles kill and dry out trees – making the trees and fallen needles more likely to burn.

Others argue that the dead pine trees provide less fuel than live ones. “The real risks, instead, are when the live trees dry out due to increased droughts and warmer temperatures; in these cases, they are much bigger threats to wildfires than the dead trees,” the report authors wrote.

While B.C. has an existing FireSmart homeowners manual with guidance on reducing the risks of wildfire, such as managing combustible vegetation, “there is an opportunity to include mitigation of invasive species under risk mitigation. Nonetheless, reinsurance companies should pay attention to both invasive beetles and plants to track the different wildfire risks they pose.”

There is also evidence that invasive plants, like cheatgrass and phragmites, can act as added fuel for wildfires.

 

Fort McMurray after the 2016 forest fire which ended up consuming large areas of the city.. Photo by Google Earth
Fort McMurray after the 2016 forest fire which ended up consuming large areas of the city. Photo by Google Earth