By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

How it made that much of a leap is uncertain, but authorities have found a case of pine wilt disease in a small tree in Colby.

Generally speaking, Hays is the western boundary for the slowly advancing disease that kills many of the popular pine trees.

Kansas regional forester Jim Strine confirmed the discovery of the disease in a tree in Colby, ironically a tree that was owned by a member of the community's tree board.

Strine is quick to say, however, that it might actually be a good thing where the tree was located because the owner raised questions about what might have happened to his Mugo pine, a relatively small decorative tree.

"I would not have suspected it would have come back positive, but it did," Strine said of the tree. "We are going to be scouring the area to make sure this is an isolated incident."

This would be the first discovery of pine wilt disease that far west in northwest Kansas. There have been some isolated cases in southwest Kansas, Strine said, but nothing to the north.

"How the insect moved that far has us puzzled," he said.

Spread along by the pine sawyer beetle, pine wilt is devastating to scots, Austrian and mugo pines. All three are introduced species, and, as a result, have no resistance to the disease.

Native pine trees, however, are highly resistant to the disease.

While Hays is perhaps the westernmost location where the disease has been found, it is readily found in the Beloit, Lincoln, Ellsworth and Great Bend areas. Infected trees have been found in the Stockton and La Crosse areas as well.

It hasn't been found in the Trego County area yet, where Strine was visiting on Monday.

"It's going to be a matter of time before it gets here," he said.

That's the issues facing foresters and trees, as the disease slowly presses westward. Pine sawyer beetles aren't strong fliers, pushed along instead by winds.

"We're baffled," Strine said of how the disease might have been carried all the way to Colby.

Colby has seen the disease before, as it was one of the first cases of pine wilt found in the state. But, that was an isolated situation.

The infected pine in Colby has since been taken out and burned, Strine said, essentially the only way to prevent the disease from spreading.

Wood also can be chipped or buried, but any firewood from an infected tree must be burned by May 1 or the beetles will emerge and start spreading again.

It's unlikely the disease can be completely stopped, he said.

"I'm afraid it's going to continue to spread and we need to try to minimize the impact of it."