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FIREFIGHTER DEATHS FOSTER POLICY REVIEW

Fires that ravaged Yellowstone in 1988 prompted a review of federal "let it burn" wildfire policies.

In like manner, wildfires in 1994 that left 34 firefighters dead have prompted another review - this time of policies that affect firefighter safety.Five air crew members were killed in separate crashes in New Mexico and Montana last year. Fourteen firefighters were killed in a single event last July when fire outran line crews working a steep ridge on Colorado's Storm King mountain.

The high death toll "was the driving force behind all of this review," said Linda Feldman, a Forest Service spokeswoman in Wash-ing-ton, D.C.

The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are leading the "Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy and Program Review" that also includes the Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and Fish and Wildlife Service.

An interagency steering committee accepted comments from federal employees and the public. "The reports and studies we have collected will help determine what might happen with policy sometime in the fall," Feldman said. Current fire policies will remain intact through the 1995 wildfire season, she said.

One of the committee's first conclusions, in a draft report published in June, is that while many policies and procedures are similar among federal agencies, "some significant differences may hinder efficient interagency cooperation."

The committee also concluded current mechanisms designed to ensure management accountability are ineffective. "As a result, there is little incentive for managers to adhere to established policy and direction or to provide oversight to the program," the draft report says.

Feldman said the review is designed to bring consistency to firefighting policies among federal agencies and has three top objectives: safety, line officers' role in fire management, and performance and accountability.

The current Interior Department safety policy, for example, says "no wildfire situation, with the possible exception of threat to human survival, requires the exposure of firefighters to life-threatening situations."

Forest Service safety policy says fire suppression should be conducted in a timely, effective and efficient manner with a "high regard for public and firefighter safety."

The proposed safety policy for all agencies is that "public and firefighter safety is the first priority. No resource or property values are worth endangering people. All suppression actions and prescribed fire plans must reflect this commitment."

While the wording in all three statements is similar, nuances are important in crisis situations where interagency teams are at work, and where firefighting decisions are also made using a matrix of cost, benefit and efficiency evaluations.

"The foundation for managing wildland fires is safety for the public and firefighters," said Charles Philpot, co-chair of the interagency team. "This report goes a long way toward ensuring that safety."

"We're now making things uniform so people who have responsibility on the line will have the same marching orders," regardless of the agency they work for, Feldman said.