Associated Press Writer
BOISE, Idaho (AP) - If advancing flames, shifting winds,
backbreaking work and searing heat weren't enough, firefighters are
now routinely warned of another kind of hazard: swarms of biting
and stinging insects drawn to wildfires.
"On a fire line, there is always something trying to bite you,
poke you, stick you and sting you," said Eric Walker, assistant
operations manager at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise
and a smokejumper on more than 100 wildfires.
The dangers of fire line insects range from the creepy nuisance
of hundreds of pinching bark beetles crawling down shirt collars
and pant legs to a face full of stinging bald-faced hornets that
can cause a life-threatening allergic reaction known as
anaphylactic shock.
In recent years, training for federal, tribal, state and private
firefighters at the center administered by the Bureau of Land
Management have included sessions on insect hazards.
"Just as insects are attracted to weakened trees in a drought,
they can also sense through heat and smoke when trees are in
trouble during a fire," said Dwight Scarbrough, a U.S. Forest
Service entomologist. "Environmentally, they know there's going to
be a feast."
And firefighters are often caught in the chow-line crossfire.
The aim is to encourage firefighters to be aware of the
potential hazards of fire bugs, the loose term for the nearly 40
species of insects that are attracted to flames or smoke.
"As highly trained as people are in emergency situations, ...
the training is usually getting them to focus on the problem at
hand, such as putting out the fire," said Scarbrough. "There's a
whole other world going on around them that may not even be within
their peripheral senses, so we're just trying open that focus up."
Insects on a "watch-out list" distributed to trainees at the
national fire center include varieties of wood-boring beetles that
infest drought-ravaged pine and fir forests. Most bark beetles,
such as long-horned beetles and fire beetles, present merely a
distraction or nuisance to crews, while the metallic variety -
called bluebacks or Ninja beetles by firefighters - have been known
to pinch and may be attracted to human perspiration or pheromones.
Ground-dwelling yellow jackets and paper wasps are sometimes
attracted by smoke from fires and can attack en masse without
warning, forest entomologists say. The larvae of Douglas fir
tussock moths - a species that defoliates stands of trees in the
West, leaving them ripe for fire - have tiny hairs on their bodies
that cause a severe skin rash in some people.
Like the bark beetles, various kinds of parasitic wasps and
stinging hornets follow smoke and fire pathways to seek out new
"I've been in fires where you can see the insects coming in and
laying their eggs in trees that are still smoldering," said Ken
Gibson, a Forest Service entomologist in Missoula, Mont. "They are
attracted to a burned tree before it dries out too much because the
recently killed wood is where their young feed."
While warning firefighters of hazards the bugs present,
instructors also stress the influence insects have on the growth
and structure of forest stands and the intensity and frequency of
fires in those stands.
It's a relationship of mutual destruction: fires kill trees,
creating favorable conditions for insects, and insects kill trees,
creating favorable conditions for fire.
"A lot of the reason we have outbreaks of disease and insects
is because we have homogenous landscapes that are in the same
conditions across many, many acres," said Sam Lindblom, national
fire training coordinator for The Nature Conservancy, which
conducts prescribed burns of some 100,000 acres of privately owned
forest land each summer. "We are trying to make our forests more
resistant to disease and insects through the application of fire as
a management tool."
For the crews who work to control the flames, insects now are
another topic covered during the safety briefings usually held over
the open tailgate of a pickup truck at fire camps across the West.
"Any time you give your briefing, depending on where you are,
you're probably going to go over the insect situation," said
Walker. "They are a daily reality. You sleep with them, you eat
with them, you work with them. You just have to deal with them."
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