The "let it burn" policy, sharply criticized after fires ravaged Yellowstone National Park, should stand with minor changes to improve communication, federal officials said Friday.
Teams of forest experts who reviewed four of the major fires that covered about a third of Yellowstone's 2.2 million acres last summer also concluded that management decisions were sound, for the most part, said Jack Neckels, deputy director of the Rocky Mountain region of the National Park Service.The findings of the teams, which looked at the fires from the preseason indicators through containment, were released Friday during a news conference at the National Park Service headquarters.
"The teams found that no wholesale changes in the fire policy are required," said Gary Gargill, regional forester of the U.S. Forest Service.
"They found that the policy and the implemented plans need to be strengthened for some specific acceptable limits on such things as weather ... and the effects of drought," he said.
The "let it burn" policy, which has been adopted by both the Forest Service and NPS, allows natural fires to burn out by themselves unless they threaten property or humans.
It drew wide criticism during the fires at Yellowstone by many who believed the blazes should have been fought more aggressively.
The review team's reports will be forwarded to a policy-making team formed by the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture.
That panel is scheduled to give recommendations on the "let it burn" policy to Interior Secretary Donald Hodel as of Dec. 15. At that point, another review process, including public comment, will be conducted.
Among the weaknesses identified by the reviews was a lack of uniform definitions for terms, and a need for improved coordination of fire management directions among the various forests and parks with similar boundaries.
Neckels said the latter problem was identified a year ago as a priority for improving but was not resolved before the summer.
"Where you have boundaries like that, clearly you can't have that much of a difference," Neckels said. "You have to have better coordination. We knew that, but we didn't get a chance to fix it prior to last season."
Another problem to be addressed is establishing specific limits on factors such as weather, the number of fires to allow within a park and the effects of droughts, he said.
"What acreage point should we begin to say, `Whoa'? These are the things that we have to consider," he said.
During briefings Wednesday and Thursday, review team members said that "for the most part, the actions were sound, the decisions were sound," Neckels said.
"Certainly there were mistakes that were made; there were things that we would do differently. But, all in all, certainly I feel good about what our professional staff and the staff of other agencies did," he said.
More than 249 fires were identified in the park last summer, the worst on record in the Northern Rockies since 1910.
The firefighters concentrated on 13 blazes that were identified as the most destructive, including one that threatened Old Faithful and another that forced the evacuation of the communities of Silvergate and Cooke City in Montana.
Gargill said 201 fires were suppressed at 10 acres or less for an 80 percent suppression rate.
The two agencies plan to begin working on the problem areas, with a goal of resolving them by April, he said.
Setting a fire management policy is sort of like building a church, Gargill said: "You don't size a church for an Easter Sunday crowd, and this was an Easter Sunday fire."