U.S. Enlists ‘Every Resource’ to Halt Fires : End of ‘Let Burn’ Policy Is Confirmed

Times Staff Writer

The White House confirmed Tuesday that the 16-year-old federal conservation policy known as “let burn"--in which most lightning-caused fires in national parks and federal forest preserves were allowed to burn out by themselves--had been overturned for the remainder of the 1988 fire season.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater noted that the “let burn” policy had been abruptly changed in late July after Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel visited weary firefighters in Yellowstone National Park, site of some of the worst blazes, and determined that all-out efforts must be made to extinguish the flames.

President Reagan agreed with Hodel that the “let burn” policy no longer made sense in situations where a severe drought and soaring temperatures had caused even fires of natural origin to flare out of control, Fitzwater told reporters.


‘Cautious Optimism’

But even though the 32 fires in eight Western states have led to “a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions,” Fitzwater expressed “cautious optimism” that the blazes can be controlled with the help of U.S. soldiers and Marines and “every resource that we have.” Fitzwater said that “at the President’s direction” the Defense Department is increasing its firefighting contingent in Yellowstone Park and southern Montana.

Two Army battalions from Ft. Lewis, Wash., and two Marine battalions from Camp Pendleton were ordered into firefighting training over the weekend and all “are expected to be on the job” by late today, he said.

Fitzwater said that the additional military personnel would be assisted by 22 military aircraft and dozens of other pieces of Pentagon equipment. That would bring the number of firefighters to about 30,000, including military and civilian personnel, he said.

Although Hodel has discussed the “let burn” policy shift in conversations with Western state officials, Reagan himself called attention to the reversal after a Rose Garden ceremony in which he signed fair housing legislation.

Not Aware of Policy

“I have questioned it,” Reagan told reporters, referring to the previous policy. “I did not even know it existed, frankly. It’s been a long-time thing.

“The minute that this happened out there and Don Hodel went out, he made it plain that, no, we were withdrawing from that policy,” the President said.

Apparently referring to complaints from some residents that the firefighting did not begin soon enough this summer, Fitzwater read a statement which said in part:

“The President has repeatedly expressed his concern for the people living in the fire areas, for the welfare of their families, for their businesses and occupations, and for the hardship that has undoubtedly consumed their lives.”

Under the federal “let burn” policy, first established in 1972 during the Richard M. Nixon Administration with support from environmental groups, lightning-caused fires in national parks and forests generally were permitted to burn unless they threatened human life or property.

Puts Back Clock

The theory was that these lands should be kept in the pristine state that existed before North America was settled by white men, a time when Native Americans had no firefighting equipment.

Environmentalists argue that such fires rid forest lands of dry underbrush that, were it permitted to remain, would lead to more devastating fires. In addition, naturally caused fires lead to destruction of old and diseased trees and permit the growth of new ones, they contend.

Some leading environmentalists Tuesday condemned the Reagan policy switch, calling it a “knee-jerk” reaction that could make future forest fires even worse.

The pre-1972 policy of putting out all forest fires “allowed unnaturally large accumulations of dead and dying vegetation to pile up on the floors of our natural forests and natural parks,” said Brien Culhane, a fire expert at the National Parks and Conservation Assn.

“What that caused was a situation, which when combined with dry weather conditions, has caused these catastrophic fires. The previous policy led to the situation we’re dealing with today.”

Two Fires Merge

Complicating the “let burn” policy, some authorities said, is that in Yellowstone a man-made fire got out of hand and merged with another fire of natural origin.

Asked about objections from environmentalists, Fitzwater replied that “it’s not a clear case of what’s right and wrong.”

“We have fires of dimensions never before seen, and we’re trying to put them out with everything we have,” he said.

Fitzwater said that the debate would best be left until next year, declaring that “there’s no need to argue over policy differences until the next firefighting season next summer.”

Staff writers David G. Savage, Douglas Jehl and Bob Secter contributed to this story.