July 1, 2005

Smokejumpers Search for Voracious Beetles

LINDEN, N.J. (AP) -- When your regular job involves parachuting into burning forests, climbing a 60-foot silver maple behind a lawyer's office in search of beetles is a nice change of pace.

"It's definitely a good gig and needs to be done," said Sarah Altemus, one of 11 smokejumpers from several Western states who have been sent to New Jersey to help inspect for the Asian longhorned beetle, a pest destroying trees in three states.

The firefighters' rope skills make them a valuable asset in the beetle battle.

In return for 12-hour days hoisting themselves into the leafy reaches, Altemus and her colleagues get overtime, $30 a day for meals, and lodging. If the weather cooperates, they will have only two days off during a 30-day hitch that began June 22.

With the Western forest fire season not yet in full swing, the U.S. Forest Service was able to spare some of the nation's 450 smokejumpers for beetle patrols in the East. Without the firefighters' climbing talents, tree surveyors would have to check trees from the ground or from bucket trucks.

The firefighters look for the beetles, their eggs or the telltale dime-size exit holes of the adults. Infested trees are then cut down along with some of their neighbors. Oaks and other species that the beetles avoid are spared. Other trees nearby are treated with insecticide.

Host trees - mostly maples, ashes, birches, elms and London planes - must be removed because the beetles tunnel into them and lay eggs in their bark, with the young insects then consuming the trees from the inside before emerging as adults. Insecticide is useless once the eggs hatch.

Smokejumpers operate from seven bases in the West and Alaska and are the shock troops of firefighters. Dropped from planes, they use hand tools to dig trenches and clear potential fuel to keep fires from spreading.

The firefighters' urban beetle patrols began in Chicago in 1998 and have taken place every year since. The polka-dotted beetles, named for their prominent antennae, first appeared in the East in Brooklyn in 1996 - perhaps in the wood of a shipping crate from China - and have since shown up in New York's Central Park and in Illinois.

New Jersey's infestation began in 2002 in Jersey City, where it is largely contained, but authorities are now trying to stem a larger outbreak that began last summer in towns along the Rahway River. Since last August, more than 7,000 trees in the Rahway River area have been removed and more than 10,000 treated.

Squad leader Boyd Burtch, 41, of Missoula, Mont., did an eight-week tour of duty in New Jersey last year. "It's definitely fun climbing," he said.

The climbers must stay clipped to their safety ropes, so the worst dangers tend to be scratches, poison ivy and the occasional dead branch giving way, he said.


On the Net:

N.J. Agriculture Department beetle information:


National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov/

U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/

U.S. Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us/ne/fia/