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A wall of fire sweeps down the Lolo Creek drainage last August in the area where five homes were burned.

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 http://largefireconference.org/.

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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