Experts convene in Missoula to discuss effects of large-scale wildfires

2014-05-19T20:11:00Z 2014-06-21T18:09:13Z Experts convene in Missoula to discuss effects of large-scale wildfiresBy MARTIN KIDSTON of the Missoulian

The number of large and catastrophic wildfires across the U.S. has grown in recent years, with seven of the 11 Western states suffering their worst seasons in the last two decades.

The consensus on why remains out, but over the next week, experts from around the world will be in Missoula discussing the trend and other issues affecting wildland fires, from policy to climate change.

“We’ve always had fires that are large, and we’ve always had fires that have economic and social impacts,” said Ron Steffens, editorial chair of Wildfire Magazine with the International Association of Wildland Fire. “We’ve put fires out for 50 years pretty well in the U.S., and some of it could also be climate change. That’s all going to be talked about here.”

Co-hosted by the IAWF and the Association for Fire Ecology, the Large Wildland Fires Conference kicked off Monday at the University of Montana, attracting 600 participants and experts from around the world.

The five-day conference will explore the social, political and ecological effects of large-scale wildfires, and offer the latest research on climate, suppression, planning, fire behavior, fire use and ecology.

“Missoula is where all the fire science was born,” said Joaquin Ramirez, who originates from Spain and works with Technosylva Inc. in California. “Missoula is the center of fire science. It’s a wonderful conference and in the last four years, this will be the most crowded and interesting one.”

This week’s panelists range from Alan Goodwin, the chief fire officer with the Department of Environmental and Primary Industries in Victoria, Australia, to Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

Field trips will take guests around western Montana, with stops at the 11-year-old Black Mountain burn on Blue Mountain, the Forest Service’s Smokejumper Center and the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, where they’ll observe the oldest wilderness fire program in the U.S. Forest Service.

“This conference is a combination of fire scientists who do the modeling, so we understand what large fires may do in certain conditions, and folks who analyze historical fires, so we can evaluate trends over time,” said Steffens. “Folks are asking if there are more fires and if they’re larger, or is it more that we’re reporting them better, or living closer to them?”

For more information, visit

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at

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(1) Comments

  1. PJarvis
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    PJarvis - May 20, 2014 8:42 am
    The increase in numbers of large fires in the northwest since the mid- to late-nineties is largely by choice. During the 60s & 70s Missoula Smokejumper Base had upwards of 180 jumpers on role, each jumping between 15 - 20 small initial attack fires every season. During the 80s those numbers started to lessen, until in the 90s the jump base had barely 72 jumpers on role, jumping 8 - 12 fires a season. Now, those numbers have dwindled even further, with only 60 jumpers on role, each jumping many fewer initial attack 'two-manner' fires - jumpers now going out on larger fires as full crews or overhead, not as digging grunts putting out small fires. This is by choice. So larger fires are a choice. Dress it up how you like, beetles, climate, more urban interface, etc, but most large fires come about by choice, by determining how each fire should be fought - or not. In the early 90s no one jumped a fire just to watch it. But that is not an uncommon practice today. Some fires have even been initially fought, only to then be let go, to run costs literally into the millions. That’s a choice. Been there, done that.

    The fact that it is now a choice not to resource small fires (early detection, quickly resourced, equals fewer larger fires) means that not only have fires become inevitably larger, but they have become monumentally more expensive, with a veritable 'fire industrial complex' having grown exponentially around them since the 90s. It is no longer unusual to see a Sikorsky Skycrane drop water onto a solitary stump all afternoon that two hiking grunts could have snuffed out in 30 minutes. Twenty years ago that would have been considered irresponsible, for cost and waste of a resource. But now, that resource has to be 'seen' to be used to justify it being requested at that location - at between $500 - $3,000/hour (whereas an average grunt costs $12 - $20).

    Scientists vs fire grunts, true stories:

    Ten jumpers landed on a fire somewhere in the Beartooths, enough to put the small, spotty fire out in a couple of days. Local district then decides not to fight the fire because it was not ‘active.’ It was overcast at the time. Eight jumpers are released, two are left to monitor the fire, sending in weather readings while the weather remains overcast. "If the sun comes out this fire is going to take off like a freight train, we don’t need any readings to determine that eventuality,” the jumper IC relates to the local district. “Keep taking the readings.” district responds. One more day of overcast weather and the district gets bored and sends the two jumpers packing out. The following day the sun comes out... and the fire takes off like a freight train, costing millions. Maybe the district got what it wanted, in that it needed several thousands of acres to burn, but that was a solid choice - not an accident, not climate, not beetles and not expanding urban interface. But I'll bet it was dressed up something like that.

    Twelve jumpers jump a fire in Colorado. One cracks his spine on landing badly. The fire is 20 yards from being fully contained when the district decides to let it go, so we all walk away. So nice that they waited for that moment to decide. But it kinda shows the lackadaisical, shortsighted, almost cavalier, thought processes going within some USFS offices that result in some of these larger fires, which evolve by choice.
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