By Edward Walsh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday , October 27, 2000 ; Page A33
The National Park Service is about to resume setting "prescribed fires" in several locations in the West, a practice that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt suspended earlier this year after one such fire roared out of control and caused extensive damage in Los Alamos, N.M.
Park Service officials said that in August, Babbitt approved a process for revising the agency's procedures in setting controlled fires on federal land, with the goal of lifting the moratorium against the practice by March 1. In the meantime, Babbitt gave the Park Service the authority to grant exemptions to the moratorium under tightly controlled conditions, they said.
Dick Bahr, a fuel management specialist with the Park Service, said yesterday that the agency has granted exemptions to allow prescribed fires in three locations this year: Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada, Yosemite National Park in California, and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park in California. He said as many as six additional exemptions may be granted this year.
Prescribed burns are intended to clear out downed and standing deadwood and brush that can fuel catastrophic fires.
Bahr said that the timing of the fires will depend on local conditions and the judgment of local Park Service officials but that all of the fires should be completed by Nov. 30, which the Park Service considers the end of the burn season in the West. After that, wet winter weather hampers both natural and man-made fires, he said.
Under guidelines set by the Park Service, the exemptions were granted only for prescribed fires considered high priority but also "low risk and low consequences" should something go wrong, Bahr said. He said the fires will not be set where there are homes or other occupied structures nearby. Local Park Service officials are being required to have the resources and manpower ready to deal with a "worst case scenario," a policy that was not in place at the time of the disastrous New Mexico fire.
"We don't want any opportunity for a fire to get out and impact homes," Bahr said. "Basically, we don't want another Montana or Cerro Grande."
Cerro Grande is the name of a hill in the Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico near Los Alamos, where a prescribed fire was ignited May 4. High, erratic winds drove the fire beyond the control area toward the city and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Before the fire was finally contained, it destroyed 235 homes in Los Alamos and burned 47,650 acres.
In response, Babbitt imposed the moratorium on prescribed fires on federal land from just west of the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.
The process that Babbitt set in motion in August involves three stages for refining and implementing new procedures for prescribed fires leading up to the planned lifting of the moratorium in March, Bahr said. He said the new procedures include measures to assess the risk of any fire and the consequences if the unexpected occurs.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, there were 84,960 wildfires that burned almost 7 million acres of land across the United States between Jan. 1 and Oct. 21. A total of 852 structures were destroyed by the fires, which cost almost $878 million to suppress.
Idaho was the hardest-hit state. It experienced 1,598 fires that burned 1.2 million acres of land, according to data compiled by the center. The next hardest-hit state was Montana, where 2,366 fires scorched 947,819 acres. In Nevada, wildfires covered more than 600,000 acres of land.
In contrast, wildfires have burned 9,069 acres in Virginia and 506 acres in Maryland so far this year, according to the center.
© 2000 The Washington Post
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