Winds Shift in Forest Fire Wisdom as the Wild-Fire Season Crackles in the West, Managers Are More Apt to Let Blazes Burn. SMOKEY-THE-BEAR BLUES Series: WINDOWS ON AMERICA. Part 43 of a Series

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WHEN fire threatened to sweep through the Kenai River canyon and into this town of 400, anxious residents feared overly cavalier government policies would sacrifice their homes to the flames.

Now, residents concur with government officials that the blaze in early June was more blessing than bane.

The fire, never closer than eight miles from town, cleared out dead timber that could have become kindling for a more threatening blaze, officials said. Growth from ash

The mosaic-patterned burns made room for new green growth that will boost wildlife populations and invigorate a forest weakened by years of beetle-caused decay, officials in Alaska say.

"For nearly every species out there, this will be good for it," said Daniel Doshier, manager of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, site of most of the 8,400-acre blaze.

"It's going to create some moose browse, it's going to create some lush growth where right now we have some dead trees. Fires are almost like a fertilizer."

Dave Liebersbach, the incident commander here, is also spreading the word that fire is a natural part of a forest life cycle. That counters decades of Smokey-the-Bear preaching by the United States Forest Service that all forest fires are bad.

The new message has gotten an uneven reception. "Generally, people are receptive to the idea that fire can be beneficial, unless the fire happens to be next door to their homes," says Mr. Liebersbach, a fire manager for the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Fairbanks, Alaska, and one of the nation's 18 Type I firefighting team leaders.

Fires have burned over 1 million acres of Alaska forest this summer; firefighters have left unmanned the vast majority of 100-plus lightning-sparked blazes.

The unattended fires considered to pose no threat to life or property burned in Gates of the Arctic National Park, Denali National Park, and the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.

The let-burn policy was widely criticized in 1988, when 793,880 acres in 2.2 million-acre Yellowstone National Park went up in flames. Some argued that the National Park Service responded too slowly to the blaze; others said the fires resulted from decades of overly aggressive fire suppression that allowed fuels to build up unnaturally.

The controversy is still too hot for Liebersbach, who was the incident commander for the 110,000-acre Storm Creek fire just outside Yellowstone Park.

"It would be hard for me ... whether Yellowstone was just cyclically due for a big fire," he says.

Now in his 26th year of fighting forest fires, Liebersbach came to Alaska in 1970 as a smoke jumper. He manages elite Type I hotshot crews - full-time and highly trained firefighters who respond to sites in Alaska and the Western states on as little as two hours' notice. …