Let it Burn or Suppress It? US Park Service vs Cal Fire Policy

This past summer brought us the gigantic Rim fire that devastated Yosemite National Park and surrounding communities. Over 4,900 firefighters operated under a unified command, however when the fire crossed over into the boundary between state and national park land, the National Park Service took a very different approach than Cal Fires (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection).

Cal Fires mandate is to suppress fires by throwing as much manpower and equipment at the fire, with the goal to put out a fire as early as possible and avoid having a larger fire. The National Park Service follows a policy called “fire use” which accepts fire as a naturally occurring process and a useful tool. While fire managers work to suppress blazes inside of parks that threaten structures or endangers people, fires burning in more remote areas within a National Park are allowed to burn themselves out. This is a more science based approach to fire fighting, used in a similar manner to forest thinning or controlled burns. Park areas are mapped and frequency of natural fires going through an area are maintained. If a fire strikes an area that has not burned within the prescribed historical record, the prescription for for that area may be to let the fire burn.

Cal Fires approach is much different. Regardless of how the fire started, human or natural causes, they are going to work to suppress the fires and put it out. This approach make sense considering the state agencies mandate to protect 31 million acres of private land, millions of acres of forests owned by timber companies and responsibility to protect hundreds of small communities from wildfires.  However, this same approach of suppression leads to vast accumulation of old, dead or dying trees, shrubs and habitats that when ignited, lead to tremendous, out of control wild land fires critics claim could and should be avoided through a more natural scientific approach as employed by the Park Service.

However, the Park Service followed this strategy with the great Yellowstone fire in 1988, allowing 706,000 acres of this historic park to burn, almost a third of the entire park.  This was a precursor to todays mega fires, prior to 1988, the largest fire in Yellowstone burned 25,000 acres.  The fire, started by a lightening strike in June, struck at a time of a severe drought.  The Park Service monitored the fire and allowed it to burn unimpeded  through the park for over a month.  Eventually, it took over 25,000 personnel, including two marine battalions, and 10 million gallons of water to put out the fire, which was extinguished by rain and snow in mid November.  In this instance, the Let it Burn philosophy turned out to be a disasterous decision.

Let it Burn or Suppress It?  There is good logic in both policies and fire managers are forced to make tough decisions.  Protecting Redwood TreesHowever, I am extremely grateful of the decision made by Cal Fires to successfully protect and defend groves of historic redwood trees in near Yosemite Park.  What a horrible price we would have paid had we stood by and done nothing, allowing fire to consume the redwoods under the policy that fire is a natural component for redwood habitats.

As the California drought continues to intensify, 2014 stands to be the driest year on record. Coupled with global warming and diminished water resources, California could experience a continuation of monstrous wild land fires within our state and national parks and monuments. Can we afford to simply let our historic parks burn as part of the natural scheme? If we took that approach, we most likely would have lost the historic Redwood Groves in and around Yosemite National Park.  Can we afford to continually suppress wild land fires?  Difficult decisions for all of us to contemplate.

Attached are two articles from the Los Angeles Times about the Rim Fire fire fighting policies and the risky attempt to save the redwood groves from fire.  Interesting reading and thoughts for our next great wild fire.


Let It Burn?

Fire Tactics Save Redwoods

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