More than 300 firefighters converge on Tucson to share ideas at fire conference

More than 300 firefighters converge on Tucson to share ideas at fire conference

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - More than 300 firefighters from 21 states and five continents have gathered at the Ventana Canyon Resort in Tucson to debate fire suppression ideas and to learn more about managing fire for social, economic and ecological benefits.

The conference runs from Nov. 28 to Dec. 2 and is hosted by the Association for Fire Ecology and the Southwest Fire Science Consortium.

The conference is held every two years and this is the second time it has been held in Tucson.

It will cover a variety of topics and workshops such as fire in a warming climate, restoring fire as a tool in forest management and how to manage fire suppression in a time of dwindling budgets.

There will also be tours on the Tree Ring Research Lab at the University of Arizona and a hike into the Santa Catalina Mountains, the scene of two large wildland fires, the Bullock and Aspen fires.

A big topic of conversation among the 325 attendees at the conference is the current fire in Gatlinburg, TN, which has led to three deaths.

There is agreement those kinds of fires will happen but they can be managed.

"We can prevent these catastrophic events which threaten towns, homes and people's lives if we allow fire back into the system where it belongs," said Don Falk a fire scientist at the University of Arizona. "Fire is not the enemy but it's an environmental factor that we have to learn to live with."

Falk said the policy of putting out fires rather than letting them burn a century ago has contributed to large, devastating fires across the country. By not allowing the vegetation on the floor of the forest to burn naturally, it has become fuel for fires which are now impossible to control.

The Yarnell Fire in Northern Arizona, which killed 19 firefighters four years ago, has provided a lesson for wildland firefighters.

"The lesson we have learned at Yarnell is at a certain level, as a society, we have to say the house can be rebuilt, the life cannot be returned," Falk said.

He says that it's a difficult decision for firefighters to make in the heat of the moment to leave a house which is going to be lost to fire but added "we have to decide if a human life is worth a human life."

Many departments across the country, he said, have adopted the policy that the life comes first which is one result of the Yarnell tragedy.

Another topic of discussion is how to protect communities when fire suppression money gets cut, as it has in recent years.

Falk says fire suppression eats up half the allocated budget while the other half goes to roads, trails, bridges and education.

"Honestly, I wish we could get members of Congress to sit in the back of the room to listen to the expertise which is here," he said.

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