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Conference highlights growing wildfire problem

By Matt Gray, Meteorologist/Reporter, mgray@keci.com
Published On: May 20 2014 05:26:04 PM MDT
Updated On: May 20 2014 08:36:23 PM MDT
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MISSOULA, Mont. -

Scientists and officials from every corner of the wildfire world are meeting in Missoula in one of the first events that bring in the fire, policy and ecology experts together. The conference runs through Friday.

The conference's name reveals its mission -- to learn about the increasingly large, destructive wildfires that are becoming common in the Mountain West and around the world. 

Over $1 billion is spent by the U.S. Forest Service each year on firefighting, and in 2014 the USFS is forecasting that they will go over budget in July.

A common thread with experts who spoke to NBC Montana is the need for prescribed burning. Smoke from prescribed fire makes the measure unpopular in vulnerable areas near homes. Prescribed burning gets rid of the built-up fuels that fires need to grow to monster sizes.

The Mountain West is seeing more of those; seven states saw their largest fire ever since 2000. Some states have beaten their record multiple times in the last 14 years.

Part of the problem, says USFS Assistant Director of Fire Elizabeth Reinhardt, is that we may be too good at fire suppression in an ecosystem that is conducive to, and even dependent on fire. 

Reinhardt said, "I think that we as an agency need to do a better job of explaining to people that it's not within our power to eliminate fire from our landscapes. What is maybe within our power is to manage fire so that we can choose when it happens."

The prescribed burning idea would be as controlled as fire can get, and there have been successful prescribed fire programs on a large scale in the Southeastern U.S. 

An informative session from the Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils will take place Wednesday afternoon. Find more details on the conference by clicking here.