Despite forest fires that raged through Yellowstone National Park and much of the West this year, a team of government officials recommended on Thursday that many naturally caused fires should still be allowed to burn - within prescribed limits.
In fact, officials said, forest fires have so much environmental value in wilderness areas that the government should consider starting more fires, rather than waiting for Mother Nature - similar to interventions that reduce avalanche danger.The team, however, did find several problems with current fire-management plans for wilderness areas and national parks - noting that a temporary moratorium should be placed on all free-burning fires until policies can be reviewed.
"Those guidelines could be ready by mid-May or late June - before the next fire season in the West. So we expect prescribed fires (those allowed to burn freely under certain conditions) will be allowed this year," said team co-chairman Charlie Philpot.
The team's report stressed that the government does not have, and never has had, an official "let-it-burn" policy. Philpot said the government does allow prescribed fires, which may burn freely to achieve environmental goals, as long as they stay within closely monitored guidelines, including weather conditions and danger to nearby communities.
But the team said it had received reports of a few managers, who personally favor a total let-it-burn policy, intentionally having allowed some fires to burn beyond the prescriptions set by policy.
The report also listed criteria for deciding when to let fires burn that have been overlooked in the past:
"Plans do not address cumulative effects of drought and other important considerations. . . . Some plans do not adequately address suppression-resource availability, values at risk outside of parks and wilderness and the number of fires that may be managed at one time."
The report said much confusion exists about whether machinery such as bulldozers can be used in wilderness areas. It said managers should determine that in advance.
National parks also need to take steps to reduce the amount of flammable material around such structures as hotels and homes. Brad Leonard, the other co-chairman of the team, said firefighters in Yellowstone often had to be pulled off areas to help control blazes to protect valuable structures. This could have been avoided with better planning and fire breaks.
The team said if fire management plans are revised to consider such criteria and if prescriptive fires are closely watched, it sees no problem with them.
"Most of the problems at Yellowstone this year were not from prescriptive fires that got loose. They were from wildfires that we were already fighting," Philpot said.