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Mat-Su offers free dumping for beetle-killed trees amid major outbreak

Jerid Blair with Palmer DOT cuts down a spruce bark beetle killed tree in the South Rolly Lake Campground on Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN)

PALMER -- For the first time, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough is offering free disposal sites for spruce beetle-killed trees as officials try to reduce fire danger amid a major insect infestation.

The borough announced an initiative Thursday that includes opening sites at the central landfill, as well as transfer stations at Big Lake and near Talkeetna, where people can bring logs and debris after they clear the trees from their property. Experts say beetle-infested trees should be disposed of properly -- cut up to dry or burned -- to reduce spread.

The service is available to Mat-Su residents only, and for private rather than commercial use. Residents can also pick up logs for firewood at all three locations.

Spruce beetles, native to Alaska, erupt into major infestations in cycles. The last big one in Southcentral Alaska in the 1990s damaged 3 million acres, mostly on the Kenai Peninsula.

Fueled by warmer winters, the ongoing infestation has reddened more than a million acres of forest in Alaska, more than half in Mat-Su. The beetles have spread into Anchorage neighborhoods.

Local and state officials are trying to reduce fire danger with the Memorial Day weekend ahead and scores of dead and dying trees in yards and forests, they said during a press conference Thursday at the main Wasilla fire station.

Fire managers also warned the public to exercise caution with campfires and debris burning over the weekend. People with burn permits should call the Division of Forestry the day they plan to burn, Palmer-based state fire management officer Phil Blydenburgh said.

Local authorities urged the public to make use of the debris dumps to clear dead trees, referencing the two destructive wildland fires that swept through the borough: the Sockeye fire in Willow in 2015 and the Miller’s Reach fire in Big Lake in 1996.

Matanuska Electric Association crews have removed more than 1,200 “danger” trees near power lines, mostly in the areas of Trapper Creek and Hollywood Road off Knik-Goose Bay Road, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Castro.

Borough Mayor Vern Halter said he’s taken out at least 150 trees on his 12-acre Willow property.

“It’s a tremendous amount of work,” Halter said during the press conference. “We’re facing a huge task here in the state of Alaska and the Mat-Su Borough. I really welcome everyone’s efforts to work on this problem.”

Joel Stefanski, who owns a tree service, came to the press conference with a warning: “You’re not gonna stop Mother Nature, guys.”

Stefanski recommended property owners forgo pesticide spraying and instead treat healthy young trees with fertilizer and water but said spruce beetles have always been in Alaska.

“They’re coming at us full force,” he said after officials made their recommendations. “Utilize this stuff, but there’s nothing you’re gonna do to slow down the infestation.”

Dead and potentially dangerous trees prompted state parks officials to close South Rolly Lake Campground in Nancy Lake State Recreation Area and Byers Lake Campground to the north in Denali State Park. State foresters are receiving $2 million from the federal government to cut down beetle-killed spruce.

State parks officials have opened day-use areas at Rolly Lake and Byers Lake, Mat-Su region superintendent Stuart Leidner said. People can hand-launch boats from the Rolly Lake area. Byers Lake’s boat launch is open, Leidner said.

He and Blydenburgh urged anyone camping outside of campgrounds to exercise caution with fire.

“Make sure you clear an area for your campfire and make sure it’s dead out,” Leidner said.

The borough’s central landfill and Big Lake Transfer Station are taking beetle debris starting Thursday. The landfill will accept beetle-killed trees and brush seven days a week from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Big Lake will accept waste seven days a week from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., with reduced days starting July 1. Loads are limited at Big Lake to 5 cubic yards per trip.

The Sunshine Transfer Site will begin taking debris Sunday and will accept pnly beetle-kill wood on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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