The hillsides and valleys of Jasper are a sickly shade of orange, covered with stands of trees killed by the mountain pine beetle — which has heightened wildfire fears in the national park townsite.

"In the last couple of years, there has been a significant movement into Jasper," said Mark Fercho, Chief Administrative Officer for the town of Jasper.

'The change is striking'

"The red trees are the trees that were infested last year, and now they're turning.

"The beetle is visible from town … the change is striking."

The beetle has been an issue in B.C. for almost two decades, but its appearance in the national park has been sudden to the casual observer and coincides with one of the worst fire seasons on record, just west of the Alberta border.

Town officials are concerned that, if a fire ever creeps up to the town boundary, the stands of affected trees could spread fire quickly.

But Fercho is most concerned about the prospect of large, flying embers.

"The concern for communities, even those which have fireguards like Jasper, is the amount of material that kind of dead forest throws into the air," Fercho said in an interview Friday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

Pine beetle larvae

Damaged trees create an ideal habitat for the pine beetles to lay their eggs. Pictured here is pine beetle larvae. (Mike Francis)

 "Fire behaviour in a town when you have conditions like we have now is dangerous no matter what but a beetle fire might be more volatile and throw larger chunks of bark in the air that then come down on the town.

"That's our biggest concern."

The current mountain pine beetle outbreak started in B.C in the 1990s, with populations of the bark-devouring insect fuelled by hot, dry summers and unseasonably mild winters.

Today, the beetle is an epidemic. The insect infestation has brought down more than 16 million hectares of B.C. forest, and begun destroying huge swaths of Alberta's boreal habitat.

In Jasper National Park, just under 50,000 hectares of forest have been affected by the beetle, according to Parks Canada officials.

Areas west of the Jasper townsite, specifically the Miette River valley, have been among the hardest hit.

Parks and federal government officials are using prescribed burns in an effort to slow the beetle's spread. Officials have also begun selective logging on infected trees.

More than 3,000 affected trees have been cut down in the park.

There has also been a "patch cut" operation up against the eastern boundary in the Athabasca Valley in an effort to create a new fireguard.

More volatile fires

The town council has spoken extensively with Parks Canada about what might be done to mitigate the mountain pine beetle situation.

Fercho said the town is also pushing to create another firebreak further west of the town's western boundary.

They've also been trying to educate the community on the importance of emergency preparedness, he said.

It will be a few years before beetle-infested trees fall down and are no longer a fire hazard.

Until then, residents of the park must be prepared. 

"In a beetle-infested forest, the wildfire behaviour in the first couple of years is more volatile," Fercho said. "We're really pushing Firesmart on residents. 

"It's that burning debris landing in homes and yards that cause fires that quickly overwhelm a local fire department's ability to respond."