Alberta forests threatened by pine beetle infestation

Alberta's Environment Minister says the province must be aggressive against an infestation that has devastated forests and is linked to two sawmill explosions.

Insect has killed 60 per cent of interior pine forests in B.C., blamed for fatal sawmill explosions

Dead trees near Peace River mark the spread of the pine beetle from B.C. into northern Alberta. (Terry Reith//CBC)

The Alberta government is looking to a neighbour for lessons on how to fend off a pine beetle infestation, which threatens the province’s forests and even its forestry workers.

"They are pretty amazing... creatures. Hard to predict," said Alberta Forest Health Officer Devin Letourneau. "We have been trying very hard to find and locate the beetle."

The pine beetle burrows into the bark of the pine trees, cutting off the plant’s nutrients and causing it to slowly die.

The fine, dry dust produced when cutting beetle infested wood has been blamed for two B.C. sawmill explosions this year which killed four people. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Sixty per cent of the interior pine forest in B.C. has been killed by the infestation. Now, it is moving into the forests of Northern Alberta.

Alberta’s Environment Minister, Diana McQueen, said the government is aggressively trying to stop the beetle from spreading.

"It is important for us as a nation to stop it here and not have it move across the country."

Mill explosions may be linked to infestation

One of the lessons Alberta has had to learn from its neighbour is the danger the pine beetle poses to mill workers.

The dead, dry wood is cut out from the forests and sent to be cut into lumber. But John Allan with the B.C. Council of Forest Industries says the wood is much drier than what mills usually cut.

"The logs that come into the sawmills are dry, they are brittle and they give off a very fine dust," he said.

That dust can hang in the air, he said, creating an explosive atmosphere which can be ignited with a spark.

Earlier this year, two separate explosions in B.C. sawmills killed four people and injured several others. Allan said they aren’t sure what caused the accidents, but the dust is a likely culprit.

"It's very important that the Alberta industry be on alert."

Allan will travel to Alberta later this month to share his experience with the local forestry industry.

Jim Stephenson with Canadian Forest Products Limited says Alberta sawmills have had to deal with far less of the infested wood, which make things safer. But the industry will have to be on guard.

"We don't want to have any lives lost here," Stephenson said. "Nor do we want to lose our investments in our sawmills either."