In Jasper National Park, world-renowned forests that were once lush and green are dying and turning orange thanks to the mountain pine beetle.
“There is such a huge infestation here. We simply cannot escape it,” says Jasper’s mayor, Richard Ireland.
The forest pest came into Alberta through British Columbia and began impacting trees in Jasper in 1999. At that point, however, the problem was limited to a few trees here and there. Recently, the beetle has been devastating the park’s mature lodgepole pine trees.
“The adult beetle will bore into adult pine trees, lay their eggs and then their young will effectively girdle the pine tree, which will kill the pine tree,” explains Dave Argument, the park’s resource conservation manager.
“They also introduce something called a blue stain fungus that also helps to obstruct all the vessels that move nutrients and water up and down the tree.”
At last count, in 2017, 93,000 hectares of the park’s forest had been impacted by the pine beetle. That’s nearly half of all the pine trees susceptible to the beetle in the entire national park.
“For the last four or five years, it’s been approximately doubling in the area impacted in Jasper.”
So why is it spreading so quickly? There are multiple factors at play, Argument says.
“Cold weather will kill the beetles in the trees over winter. We just haven’t been getting the cold winter snaps that we used to. Drought conditions: if the trees are stressed during the summer, they’re also more vulnerable to attack.”
Another issue was a longstanding policy of preventing wildfires from burning in and around Jasper. Putting out naturally occurring fire led to the dense forests seen today, full of trees that are very similar in age and height, prime picking for pine beetles.
Now, Parks Canada looks at fire differently and is in fact using prescribed burns to help manage the pine beetle infestation.
The biggest concern posed by the pine beetle problem is the amount of dead trees they leave behind which are a perfect fuel for wildfires.
“The risk of fire right now is the paramount concern,” Ireland says.
The town of Jasper is home to about 5,000 people and both firefighters and volunteers have been training to prepare for a potential wildfire.
“We bought a trailer with a bunch of hoses and sprinklers so those can be set up around town to help combat fire,” Ireland says.
The town’s residents are being asked to fireproof their homes, pack 72-hour emergency kits and to get to know the evacuation routes. Like Fort McMurray, Jasper is nestled right in the middle of the forest and has a limited number of exits.
“There are three valleys out of town. We can go east, west, or south. That’s the limit of it,” Ireland explains.
Parks Canada is doing its part to try and protect the town against the threat of fire as well.
A community fireguard has been established above the town, near Patricia Lake. It’s a wide grassy section where the lodgepole pine trees have been removed. The hope is that in the event of a wildfire, the flames would drop from the treetops to the ground at that point, making it easier for firefighters to extinguish them.
Machines are also being used to cut down dead trees but there are so many that they can’t all be removed so the risk remains.
When the fire risk is high, a crew of four firefighters is at the ready at all times, waiting to hop on board a helicopter at the first sign of smoke.
“The fact that… [trees are] now red and dead because of the pine beetle, that just extends the season that we may see ourselves in high or extreme danger. It means that we’ll have fire bans more frequently,” Argument says.
Ireland says he hopes tourists can be part of the solution as well.
“Just be extremely careful with all ignition sources. That includes barbecues and cigarettes and campfires — anything that can start a fire.”
After the trees are infested by the mountain pine beetle, the needles will remain on the dead trees for about five years. It’s in that period that the fire risk is highest. Eventually, the forests will turn the corner, Argument says.
“The dead trees will come down over the next 10 or 15 years. As soon as the needles come out of the canopy, we start to see the regeneration from the forest floor and the green up again, which helps to retain moisture in the forest floor and bring the fire risk down again.”