Outfitters operating in central Idaho say much of their business and equipment have gone up in smoke this year because of the U.S. Forest Service's "let-burn" policy for wilderness fires.

Losses to date amount to more than $500,000, said Grant Simonds, executive director of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association.But Forest Service officials respond that the outfitters' business is subject to the whims of nature and suppression attempts were made on the fires before they raged out of control.

The policy calls for letting a wilderness fire burn for a time, unless it threatens people or property. Forest Service officials say a blaze burning in a spotted "mosaic" pattern can clear away dead timber and provide new game forage.

Included in the damage, Simonds said, were six camps destroyed at up to $12,000 apiece; a two-week area closure that cost five outfitters up to $22,000 each; and four companies that lost ground access to the wilderness because of road closures, leaving them to fly in gear with helicopters at about $500 an hour.

River outfitters operating on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River also suffered financial losses when fire shut down the Indian Creek airstrip in late August.

David Mills of Boise, co-owner of Rocky Mountain Outfitters, said he has filed a $4,000 claim with the Salmon National Forest for forcing him to evacuate clients and crew, which he said was not necessary.

Outfitters recognize the merits of the let-burn policy, Simonds said. But they say the Forest Service should have known the third drought year in a row was not a good time to let fires burn freely.

"The policy needs more flexibility to account for the abnormality of dry years," Simonds said. The group will suggest modifications to the policy this winter.

While emphasizing he was not making light of outfitters' financial losses, Gene Benedict, fire management officer for the Payette National Forest, said they should recognize the risks of operating in wild country.

"Fire is no different than earthquakes and tornadoes," Benedict said. "We can't always control it."

Not all outfitters sustained losses. Bill Guth, who runs Flying Resort Ranches, said fire crews saved his Root Ranch, and elk hunting has been good.

"We've been kind of lucky," Guth said. "But I don't want to sound like these other guys are crying for nothing, because they're hurting."

Simonds said the Forest Service has been very cooperative in trying to relocate camps and open up new territory for hunting.

Doug Bird, fire management officer for the Forest Service Region 4 office in Ogden, Utah, said the financial effect on outfitters "is very much considered, but all of the fires ... were being treated as wildfires at the time and were being suppressed."

The Forest Service has spent $15 million on all Idaho fires so far this year.

Bird admitted most let-burn fires were too large to control once the agency decided to fight them. The Battleaxe fire in the Challis National Forest, for example, "is one where we should have taken suppression action earlier because of the Indian Creek airstrip," he said.

He also said the extreme fire year made available equipment and manpower scarce when the fires began.

"Sometime, someone's going to endure impacts from fire," Benedict said. "They're operating in wild country that I don't think we can tame," he said.