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‘Fire-chasing’ beetles are attacking fire crews amid California firefight

Published: Jul. 16, 2021 at 10:23 AM PDT
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MADERA COUNTY, Calif. (KMPH) - When you think of things that could make wildland firefighters’ lives and jobs harder, what comes to mind? High temperatures? Dangerous terrain?

How about having to fend off thousands of biting insects?

There’s been something going on behind the scenes in news coverage of the River Fire: bite, yelp, swat, repeat.

Firefighters agreed these things are the worst, and the bugs don’t care at all about bug spray.

Entomologists said the bugs are attracted to fire.

“These are what are called fire-chaser or charcoal beetles. They’re beetles in the genus Melanophila,” said Jacob Wenger, assistant professor of entomology at California State University Fresno. “There are a bunch of species that all exhibit this behavior, but basically, they’re beetles that lay their eggs in trees killed by wildfires.”

Fire-chasers, in the buprestidae family, are a type of metallic wood-boring beetle.

They like freshly dead trees, and the easiest way to find them is by tracking fires.

“The beetles can sense both the smell of smoke through their antenna, but they also can sense infrared light or heat energy,” Wenger said.

So why are they attacking? They think firefighters are trees.

“Vertical surfaces, to them, mean trees. So you’re just something that’s upright like a tree, and they’re going to fly and land on you,” said Dennis Haines, the Tulare County agricultural pest management specialist. “They simply are trying to grip you. They have mouthparts that they use to chew out wood. So they’ve pretty good mandibles.”

At a time when firefighters are already dealing with such severe conditions, any distraction can be a danger.

But for people at home, there’s good news: Even though the fire gave thousands of fire-chaser larvae space to thrive, they probably won’t be descending on your town. They’ll stick to the woods and wherever they smell smoke.

Entomologists said there are worse bugs the firefighters could be facing.

Horn-tail wood wasps have a piercing stinger on the end of their abdomen that they jam into trees - or humans - trying to create holes to lay eggs.

Copyright 2021 KMPH via CNN Newsource. All rights reserved. Gray Media Group, Inc., contributed to this report.