Vern Halter

Mat-Su Borough Mayor Vern Halter spoke during a press conference Thursday morning. Borough officials announced the borough is offering free drop off for spruce bark beetle kill trees.

WASILLA — The Mat-Su Borough is responding to the seasonal wildfire danger in the Mat-Su Valley by opening up opportunities for free disposal of spruce bark beetle affected trees.

Borough and state officials, as well as a representative from Matanuska Electric Association presented fire safety tips on Thursday morning. At the Central landfill and the Big Lake transfer site, spruce bark beetle kill trees will be accepted for free during regular business hours. The Central landfill will accept trees from 8 a.m., to 5 p.m., and the Big Lake transfer site will accept trees from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. The Sunshine Transfer site at Mile 102.5 of the Parks Highway will also accept spruce bark beetle kill trees beginning on May 26 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. However, all solid waste locations will be closed on Memorial Day.

“I think our issue is we have a grave danger when it comes to beetle kill spruce and we do not have the finances to eradicate all of this, but a combination of being smart, getting Federal grants and having property owners really take care to protect their properties,” said Borough Manager John Moosey.

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The campgrounds at South Rolly Lake and Byers Lake have been closed indefinitely, but day use is still available at both campgrounds. Canoe and kayak rentals are still available. Borough officials noted the likely economic impact of closing down popular tourist destinations, but put safety of residents ahead of their bottom line.

“This is a very serious thing for the Mat-Su Borough and I’m really pleased that we have all these partnerships with the State of Alaska to work on this problem,” said Borough Mayor Vern Halter.

Borough Director of Emergency Services Ken Barkley said that they wanted to alert the community of what the borough is doing to help mitigate fire hazards over the holiday weekend.

“Make sure you have proper area, proper clearing when burning and make sure you have water on site,” Barkley said.

State of Alaska Park Superintendent for the Mat-Su Borough Stuart Leidner detailed the decision from officials to close both campgrounds that started this winter. Forestry personnel recognized potential danger at both campgrounds. One example provided was a tree that had fallen from 20 feet up that would have landed on a camper parked in the space just hours prior.

“We didn’t feel from a safety issue that that was a prudent thing to do to have the campground open,” Leidner said.

Much of the spruce bark beetle infested trees are located in the north Valley. MEA Public Affairs Manager Jennifer Castro said that MEA crews are spending three quarters of their time addressing problem trees, and that MEA crews have already fallen over 1,200 trees near Trapper Creek and Hollywood Road near Knik-Goose Bay Road. Castro defined what a problem tree is.

“A tree that is structurally unsound located on or off the right of way that could come in to contact with our power lines by growing, falling, or swaying into an energized line,” Castro said.

District 5 Assembly Member Dan Mayfield recalled the harrowing Miller’s Reach and Sockeye fires in the last two decades.

“You can’t imagine the emotional loss and the financial loss that occurred from that,” Mayfield said. “I really resolve myself to never having a wildfire in the Mat-Su Borough again, so that’s why I really think it’s so very important that we enter into this partnership with the Division of Forestry, State Parks, The Borough and MEA to address our wildfire concerns.”

During the 7,200 acre Sockeye Fire, over 100 structures perished and over 50 were homes. Mayfield recalled that the 1996 Miller’s Reach fire destroyed 344 homes in over 37,000 acres and the cost was estimated at greater than $10 million.

Joel Stefanski worked for MEA for over two decades and now operates his own tree service. Stefanski was allowed to offer some education from his four decades in forestry.

“There is a lot of bad information out there in the public. Infestations have been since the beginning of time there’s nothing on earth that can stop it,” Stefanski said.”The biggest recommendation I give people is fertilizer and water, 83216 fertilizer and water, that’s the best thing you can do and mostly on your younger trees.”

Moosey did not offer an estimate as to the economic impact lost from the campground closures and dead trees that are unable to be harvested and sold as timber. Moosey said that getting trees to market in a timely fashion has been an issue as long as he has been with the Borough. The difficulty with addressing over 1 million acres of spruce bark beetle infested trees in South Central Alaska is that many are out of reach.

“A great majority of this is on the roadless part out past the Big Su and past the Little Su and that’s an extreme challenge just getting to some of this forest,” Halter said.

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