Fires ignite debate over `let-it-burn' policy
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The current fire management policy, Chase says, follows on the heels of a policy that mandated suppression of all forest fires between 1872 and 1972. The sequence of policies failed to account for the buildup of more than 100 years of natural fuels - the dead wood, brush and pine cones especially prone to wildfires, Chase says.Skip to next paragraph
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Were those fuels to be consumed by truly natural fires - which occurred in Yellowstone every 40 years prior to 1872 according to tree ring studies - the effect of fire on the wilderness would be salutary, Chase says. But the huge buildup and extreme dryness of fuels this year, fires burn hotter and are likely to damage the wilderness system, Chase says. (Officials put brush and tree-moisture levels at around 2 percent this season. By comparison, kiln-dried lumber holds 12 percent moisture.)
Park authorities hold little regard for Chase's position and would not respond to it, a Yellowstone spokesman says.
Mainline environmentalists take issue with Chase's position, saying he is too bound by a vision of what Yellowstone used to be. ``It sounds good in the abstract,'' says Hank Fischer of Defenders of Wildlife, ``but is not too realistic in a practical sense.''
Others point out that widespread, controlled burning could reduce the excess fuels in the forest. But there's no guarantee that a wilderness will not be damaged by natural fires that skip over the open spaces created by controlled burns or by controlled burns that go out of control, mainline environmentalists say.
Future fire policy
Despite their differences on present fire management policy, Chase, other environmentalists, and government fire managers agree on one issue: This year's fires should not be allowed to swell sentiment for total fire suppression in the future.
The century of mandatory fire suppression prior to 1972 grew out of widespread frustration with catastrophic forest fires, says Brien Culhane of the National Parks and Conservation Association.
A forest fire in Peshtigo, Wis., in October 1871, killed some 1,500 people - sparking a movement to stamp out wildfires whenever and wherever they occurred, Mr. Culhane says.
The Peshtigo fire, together with subsequent catastrophies in the late 19th and early 20th century galvanized the policy of total fire suppression that remained in place until 1972.
``What would be tragic,'' Culhane says, ``is if we had the same reaction now as happened back then.'' A new policy favoring fire suppression would pave the way for yet another catastrophic fire season years from now, he says.
Park officials and businesspeople in the Yellowstone area are working hard to defeat the perception that the forestlands burned so far have created a moonscape at the park and elsewhere.
While fire boundaries currently encompass more than 4 million acres nationwide, they note, not all of the area where the fires have passed will be charred or necessarily touched.