A firestorm of political opportunism and incendiary rhetoric is racing through the treetops of Congress. It's scorching good science, laying waste to common sense, and leaving nothing in its path but smoke and hot air.

I'm referring, of course, to the reaction of some Montana and Wyoming politicians to the Yellowstone National Park fires.This group - which might be referred to as the Senate Select Committee on Hindsight and Armchair Quarterbacking - has called for the resignation of National Park Service director William Penn Mott.

There ought to be a law that no one can make pronouncements about national park fire policy until the season's last fire is out, when personal discomfort, fear and panic also have been extinguished.

Local residents are understandably upset. And certainly complaints that fires have hurt Yellowstone tourism are legitimate. While some businesses have made up for these losses by housing, clothing or feeding the firefighters, others have not.

That's unfortunate, but it's a fact of life that fires must occur some time. Woody fuels - fallen branches, wind-toppled trees - cannot be expected to accumulate forever in a semi-arid environment where natural decay occurs slowly and dry lightning storms are frequent events.

It's equally important to understand that the result of the government's long-standing policy of immediately extinguishing all wildfires was an unnatural build-up of woody fuels. This policy was both dangerous and bad for wildlife.

When television and newspapers tell the world that fires are "destroying Yellowstone," they are wrong. The fires are not destroying Yellowstone, they're changing it. And in most cases, those changes will promote a greater diversity and abundance of plants and animals.

Before this summer, much of Yellowstone was blanketed by a thick stand of lodgepole pine - a virtual ecological desert that supported little wildlife and contained minimal plant diversity.

It's nonsense to suggest that fire will destroy plants which have evolved strategies for coping with fire over tens of thousands of years. It's because of this evolutionary history that the cones of the lodgepole pine release their seeds in extreme heat, that the Douglas fir has thick bark to resist fire, and that aspen trees sprout prolifically after a fire has passed.

A more reasoned view of the 1988 fire season would be that it's an anomaly. Records show that similar conditions have never occurred before in Yellowstone. It's unreasonable for politicians to expect park managers to anticipate a season the likes of which no one has ever seen before.

There are always people who want to point fingers in the midst of a crisis. This is especially true in election years. But what is truly amazing is how this enormous natural phenomenon has caused so little loss of property and no loss of life.

Yes, several hundred thousand acres of forest have burned. But, as of this writing, the total property loss has amounted to about 15 cabins and outbuildings, a handful of trailers and some outdoor toilets.

Instead of laying blame, headline-seeking politicians might give the credit where it's due: to the agencies and individuals that have done such an exceptional job protecting houses and property.

And if they scratch beneath the layer of Yellowstone soot, they might also conclude that the park will be a healthier and an infinitely more intersting place because of this exceptional ecological event of 1988.

(Rupert Cutler is the president of Defender of Wildlife and a former assistant secretary of Agriculture in the Carter administration.)