Crystal Lakes deploys new weapons in beetle war

The ravaging pine-bark beetle that has devastated Colorado’s forests has put the Crystal Lakes community on the front line of the war against beetle-kill.

Nestled among profuse forests of lodgepole pine — the favorite food of the beetle — Crystal Lakes northwest of Red Feather Lakes became an early target.

“It will get worse before it gets better,” says Crystal Lakes Associations general manager Jody Sandquist.

The residents have acted on their own and in concert with the association to fight this war with every available tool, including two new technologies. And the neighborhood approach to disposing of large dead pine and spruce trees is attracting regional attention.

In any war, troops must first be equipped and trained. At Crystal Lakes, individuals and the association have been producing pamphlets, bringing in speakers, partnering with other Front Range programs and creating their own beetle-busting teams.

This outreach teaches homeowners about the lifecycle of the bug, how to identify both infested trees and brood trees — the ones that hold live beetles that can reproduce and fly out to infest other trees in the coming season. These must be cut and removed to halt the infestation.

An as is true on any battlefield, a major logistical problem is removing the fallen. The enormous stacks of logs must be removed, debarked or otherwise treated to kill the insects brooding in them. Every bit as difficult is dealing with vast piles of slash — the limbs and needles removed from the trunks.

At first, Crystal homeowners had to move logs almost 60 miles to the county landfill to dispose of them properly. Three years ago Larimer County opened up local “sort yard” on Creedmore Lakes Road where infested trees could be dropped off. This saved homeowners time and travel money, but didn’t deal with the slash problem, and eventually became too expensive for the county to maintain.

For a few years the Crystal Lakes association provided an area on Tiny Bob Road where slash could be piled. During the winter the association would hire the local fire department to burn the pile. However, last year’s mild weather failed to produce favorable conditions for a burn, and now all open burning is banned within Crystal Lakes.

So residents have brought in some heavy equipment to wage the beetle war.

Kilns and air-curtain burners

The association has partnered with a new company, Bio-Char of Colorado, to burn the slash pile in portable steel kilns. The process turns the slash into a charcoal product that can be used as a potent fertilizer.

Each kiln-load of slash is allowed to burn to an optimum temperature, then the air vents are sealed. In the absence of oxygen, the wood is reduced to charcoal, which is crushed into a powder to become a nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Tomatoes allegedly love this ancient Aztec method of improving soil.

Each kiln can burn up to 2.5 yards of slash at a time, producing some 500 pounds of charcoal. The process also produces a good deal of smoke and a lot of soot. Workers wear gas masks for protection.

The other big — and expensive — weapon in the Crystal Lakes beetle-war arsenal is the air-curtain burner. When the association decided not to purchase one, residents Shirley Pfankuch and her husband Gary Weigel raised the funds from 49 investors to buy the equipment. Their company is now called Slash Solutions LLC, and plans to burn 2,600 cubic yards of material per month.

Several residents of Conifer recently visited the Slash Solutions site on County Road 73C, about a half-mile north of Red Feather Lakes Elementary, to assess the program’s viability and potential for replication.

The air-curtain burner
An air-curtain burner uses a powerful fan to recirculate air in a dumpster-like fire chamber. This produces very high temperatures that burn the material completely with very little smoke. Think of a blacksmith using a bellows to heat the fuel in a forge. The technology was originally created to deal with cleanup in the wake of hurricanes and tornadoes.

The air-curtain burner can burn logs, slash and even stumps. It is equipped with special steel-mesh screens to trap embers, but a fire truck is parked nearby, just in case. Closed circuit cameras allow the operators to monitor the site from a distance, via the Internet.

“It lets me sleep better at night,” Weigel says.

The burner also produces a charcoal residue, which is hauled away by Gallegos Sanitation to add to their compost.

Slash Solutions is located on the site of the former county sort yard, and charges residents $5 per cubic yard for slash, $6 for logs and stumps.

As winter approaches, the beetles will sleep in their cozy wooden tunnels inside the pines. But the residents of Crystal Lakes will continue manning the trenches and foxholes of their long war.

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