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FEDERAL FOREST FIRE POLICY STRIKES JUST THE RIGHT NOTE

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The public can be excused for being confused about the federal firefighting policy in national parks and forests. One news report this week said the Interior Department was abandoning its controversial "let it burn" philosophy. Another report the same day said the government was retaining the policy.

Actually, both are right. It depends on how the subtle changes in the approach to fires are viewed. Some things are altered and some things stay the same. Basically, some fires will be allowed to burn but only under carefully prescribed circumstances. They will be closely watched, and daily reports will be required.This seems to be the right approach to forest and range fires. It would be a mistake to try to douse every fire immediately. There are environmental benefits to letting fires burn: They destroy tangled undergrowth and dead wood, making way for new growth.

Yet there are limits to how far this can be carried. Decisions need to be made in every fire about how far is enough. That puts more responsibility on federal officials who are on the scene.

Concerns over federal firefighting policy erupted last year when huge blazes consumed vast parts of Yellowstone National Park after being allowed to burn out of control until they threatened park facilities and other property.

In the aftermath of those fires, public outcry caused the government to prohibit any more "controlled" fires this summer. All conflagrations have to be fought from the start.

In the meantime, a task force has been reviewing firefighting policies, and it was that group's recommendations that were released this week.

The revised policy will apply to hundreds of millions of acres controlled by the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Under the new policy, federal officials on the scene will have to decide right away whether a blaze is a "wildfire" or a "proscribed" fire. The latter is seen as beneficial and would be allowed to burn.

However, such burning would be kept within careful limits and could not be allowed to endanger human life or private property. Enough firefighting and equipment would have to be on hand to conquer the blaze, when needed.

Daily reports would have to be filed explaining why the fire was being allowed to burn and certifying that it could be kept within certain boundaries.

This kind of local flexibility was one of the things missing in major fires last year. Fires can't be fought from Washington. Decisions are best made on the spot.

Despite the changes in emphasis in the fire policy, the existing order to fight all fires anywhere on federal land will probably remain in effect this summer until everybody is trained and ready next year.

The new policy seems to strike the right note between what is helpful and what must be fought as too destructive.

But it should be remembered that having a policy is not the same thing as putting out flames. Fire has a way of getting out of control in a dry forest, no matter what federal officials decide about where it should or should not be allowed to burn.