Jim Burchfield has a lot of questions about fire and how Westerners respond to its presence in their back yards, but not many answers.
Questions like: Should people who live in a high-risk fire setting pay more for fire protection than people who live in town? Would people rather that the Forest Service cut trees or burn them? Are prescribed fires a waste of precious fuel? Are people willing to put up with the smoke from prescribed fires to reduce the risk of a large uncontrolled fire? What do we even know about the costs and benefits of prescribed fire?
That's why Burchfield - director of the Bolle Center for People and Forests at the University of Montana - has summoned 70 social scientists, ecologists, landowners, loggers and land managers to Missoula for a four-day conference, "Social Acceptability of Fuel Treatments on Western Public Lands."
"I want to develop a new series of priorities for research," Burchfield said. "What do we need to know if we want to know what people care about in terms of treating forest fuels? And how are people involved in decisions about the treatment of fuels?"
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At issue is the buildup of forest fuels caused by the past 70 years of fire suppression on national forests - a buildup that many land managers believe is responsible for the hotter-burning, faster-spreading wildfires of recent years.
Burchfield is interested in how the public responds to "fuel treatments" intended to thin the overgrown forests - prescribed fires and timber cutting.
"All of us recognize that it's a tragedy when someone's house burns down, and an even greater tragedy when lives are lost," he said. "But there is huge uncertainty about how we address the fuels problem in a manner that's economically feasible and socially acceptable."
The conference will begin with a public, evening session Sunday, then meet privately for three days, mostly in small discussion groups.
Sunday's open session - from 7-9 p.m. at the Holiday Inn-Parkside - will begin with a talk by Rocky Barker, natural resources reporter for the Idaho Stateman newspaper in Boise. Barker will discuss the way people in the West have coped with increased fire intensity and frequency over the past two decades.
He'll be followed by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who will describe ways to make public institutions more responsive to the call for healthy, productive forests.
Proceedings from the conference will be published, with support from the Joint Fire Sciences Program and the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station, and distributed to policymakers nationwide.
Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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More information on the conference is available on the School of Forestry's Web site, www.forestry.umt.edu.