On letting fires run

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COOLER heads should prevail on the heated subject of National Park Service and US Forest Service policies for fighting forest fires. Those policies hold that fires ignited naturally - as by lightning - are allowed to burn themselves out unless they threaten life or property, threaten to burn beyond forest or park boundaries, or burn beyond areas where the forest service would like to see ground-level fuel reduced.

This approach constitutes good forest management. Without periodic forest fires, the combustible material - dry twigs, dead bushes, pine needles - that litter the forest floor builds. This results in a fire that burns hotter and spreads faster than it otherwise would.

One could achieve the same end by adopting European methods of intensive forestry. These tree-by-tree techniques keep forests clear of deadwood by using human labor, rather than fires. But the practice is impractical and uneconomic for the US, given the vast tracts of land to be tended and the small population in its national forests.

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The limited burn-itself-out policy also constitutes efficient use of firefighting resources, especially when Congress is tightening Uncle Sam's belt. As with other natural events, policies for responding to forest fires are based on frequency of past fires, their intensity or extent, and the potential for personal or economic harm. After weighing all of these factors, it seems prudent to steer policies toward the more frequent forest fires, rather than the once-in-200-year megafire.

In the case of Yellowstone National Park, the fires raging there are the worst in more than 200 years. They started in May, when weather forecasts for the area were still calling for the area's usual damp June. In some instances, fires started in national wilderness areas. There, firefighting equipment - even chain saws - are forbidden by the Wilderness Act of 1964. By the time anyone knew the weather had bucked the forecast, and by the time fires left the boundaries of wilderness areas, the stage was set for the conflagration that ensued. Firefighters are working heroically to control the blazes. Nothing indicates that politicians calling for the dismissal of National Park Director William Penn Mott could have foreseen the Yellowstone fires' courses any more clearly.

The energy used to take political pot shots at those who administer our national parks and forests would be better spent in at least four areas:

Providing financial assistance to those who have lost homes or businesses.

Building support for more research into forest fires. The goal would be to improve computer simulations of forest fires and use them more widely to help deploy firefighting manpower and materi'el to greatest effect.

Supporting long-term follow-up research on the areas affected by these fires to better understand how the forest rejuvenates itself.

Exploring new forest-management and fire-response policies to take into account climate changes such as global warming from the greenhouse effect.

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