Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How National Parks Manage Fire Risk

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How National Parks Manage Fire Risk

Article excerpt

Officials at the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park in California adopted an unusual wildfire policy four decades ago: When possible, they'd let fire be fire.

If a blaze didn't threaten homes or people, park officials would let it burn. The idea was to let natural processes take over and prevent wildland from becoming too overgrown and vulnerable to a conflagration.

Forty years on, this strategy - known as "fire management" - is in place in wilderness areas across the West despite constant revision after a catastrophic miscalculation in the late 1980s at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. But as this year's extraordinary wildfire season in northern California shows, the strategy isn't always practical.

Firefighters at Yosemite National Park, for instance, normally let fires burn thousands of acres each year, sometimes for weeks. This year, the epidemic of nearby wildfires has caused so much pollution that Yosemite allowed only four fires to burn because of smoke regulations.

The strategy of using fire to prevent future fires "is a luxury," especially given the restrictions regarding its use, says Jan van Wagtendonk, a federal fire researcher who works at Yosemite. Still, he says, "it's the most natural way to allow the ecosystem to perpetuate itself."

Yosemite's longstanding embrace of managed fires would not have prevented last week's wildfire from eventually entering the park and destroying homes and park facilities, Mr. van Wagtendonk says, but it would probably have protected much of the nearly 1,200-square- mile park by reducing the levels of overgrowth.

The so-called Telegraph wildfire last week, said to be caused by a target shooter, burned 21 homes and threatened to enter Yosemite. Firefighters reported Sunday that the fire was mostly under control, although it had burned more than 33,920 acres.

Yosemite allows fires to burn in 80 percent of the park, van Wagtendonk says. In some cases, firefighters burn off overgrown brush in the backcountry; at other times, they "herd" fires caused by lightning.

Monitoring is key, van Wagtendonk says. "We don't put a blindfold on and look the other way. …

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