The team that reviewed the summer fires in Yellowstone National Park didn't point any fingers in a report it recently issued, but the report hints that officials made enough mistakes to keep congressional panels busy in 1989.
When combined with individual fire reviews released earlier last month, the report suggests that several government officials, including Yellowstone Superintendent Robert Barbee, are going to face tough questions on the decisions they made.The review team, composed of National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service fire experts, heard from officials who welcomed uncontrolled burns as long as the fires stayed within park and wilderness boundaries - a practice that clashes with national fire policy.
The team said it found no evidence indicating that actually happened but recommended that allegations of misuse of policy be investigated.
The only incident where policy apparently was ignored was identified in an earlier report on the Clover-Mist fire. Park officials began suppression of that fire on July 14 to protect the Calfee Creek Cabin but continued to manage it as a prescribed burn. Under Yellowstone's policy, managers are required to give wildfire status to a natural blaze when they begin suppression activities to protect structures.
The wildfire declaration was not made until July 21 when the fire reached the boundary of the Shoshone National Forest.
That was the last day reviewers said managers could have realistically stopped the fires. Eventually, four residences, one store and 14 mobile homes were lost in the fires and 105 million board feet of timber was destroyed in the Shoshone National Forest. A firefighter also died battling the blaze in October.
Yellowstone's chief ranger, Dan Sholly, who was in charge of fighting more than five fires at the time, said it was just a matter of "semantics." Park officials were carefully monitoring the fire, but had given it a lower priority than others that posed more immediate threats to people and property, he said.
Reviewers also noted that J.R. Richer of the Shoshone National Forest indicated to park officials that the Shoshone would accept the fire as a prescription fire even though it exceeded forest limits for prescription burns.
Similar action was taken on the Mink Creek fire when it crossed into the park July 21. The park accepted it as a wildfire with a containment strategy on its northern edge.
But it only monitored its advance while firefighters had been building a line around it when it was on the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
"This created a perception that there was a difference in basic fire strategy between the units," said the interagency team that reviewed the Mink Creek fire.
Yellowstone officials weren't the only ones who dramatically lowered suppression efforts during the summer and regretted the decision later. The Storm Creek fire in the Custer National Forest was fought vigorously from July 4 to July 22 as a wildfire.
But from July 22 until it blew up again Aug. 20, little suppression was carried out. Eventually it grew to 95,000 acres, burning several cabins and threatening the towns of Cooke City and Silvergate, Mont.
Interagency reviewers said the fire continued to be managed during the slow period as a wild fire, but using a confinement-containment strategy.
"This strategy was similar to the prescribed fire strategy, but it was definitely the selected strategy for the wild fire," the reviewers said in their report.
The initial attack of the North Fork fire caused considerable controversy during the fires. Targhee National Forest fire control officer John Price said it could have been stopped if bulldozers had been allowed in the park. But the North Fork review team rejected that view.
With spot fires jumping up to a half mile ahead of the fire the evening of July 22, even Rodd Richardson, the Island Park ranger who was in charge of the initial attack, said "all constraints aside" his team had only a 50 percent chance of stopping the blaze.
"There could have been a loss of equipment, crews in danger, and unnecessary damage to the environment," the reviewers wrote. "The end result, an escaped fire, would have been the same."
The biggest mistake identified in all of the reviews was the underestimation of the significance of the drought on fire conditions in and around the park. Both Yellowstone and Forest Service officials had indications that the fire season might be abnormally severe. But neither took significant action until July.
Yellowstone officials depended on the average of 200 percent of normal precipitation that had fallen in the previous six Julys. By the time the first of the summer's series of windstorms went through the area July 14, the potential catastrophe became apparent.
"Obviously, we underestimated the severity of the summer," said Sholly. "Had we got any of the rain we usually get in July or any of the rain we normally get in August, those things wouldn't have happened."
But it appears doubtful that anyone will be reprimanded for not predicting an event that had never happened in the recorded history of the area.
The reviewers hardly discussed the decisions about opening and closing park facilities during the fires. The pressure was on officials to keep as much of the park open as possible.
Yellowstone managers said they were going too far Sept. 7 at Old Faithful when tourists were trapped in the village as it was engulfed by a firestorm. But since no tourist was injured and since area businessmen wanted the park kept open, it is doubtful Congress will criticize park officials for that.
Several senators and representatives called for the firing of Park Service Director William Penn Mott and Barbee at various times during the fires. Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., said it was likely that Mott will be replaced when Manuel Lujan, Bush's choice for Interior secretary, takes over.
Barbee's fate seems less clear. He shares responsibility for the Clover-Mist decisions with Sholly.
Simpson said he will zero in on those decisions in his questioning during committee hearings in 1989.