GROVELAND, Calif. — As the massive Rim fire roared out of the Stanislaus National Forest and deeper into Yosemite National Park this week, public attention rose sharply.
But the intensity of firefighting did not.
That’s because part of the blaze had crossed into the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, which has a more restrained approach to managing wildfires than other federal, state and local fire agencies battling the 350-square-mile blaze.
Officials estimate that it will be fully contained in two or three weeks, but it is expected to keep smoldering for weeks longer and won’t be truly out for months.
“This fire will burn until the first rains or until the snow flies,” said Lee Bentley, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.
Although the 4,600 firefighters here operate under a unified command, the park service1 has a very different firefighting philosophy from that of the forest service or the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The portion of the Rim fire burning outside the park is fought aggressively by the forest service and Cal Fire. Bulldozers rip fire lines across the landscape, and crews fell trees and set protective backfires. Helicopters and tanker airplanes drop water and retardant.
“We want to send as much equipment to a fire as we can,” said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. “Our goal is to put it out early and avoid having a large fire.”
But inside parks, a policy often called “fire use” accepts fire as a naturally occurring process and often a useful tool.
Park fire managers suppress blazes that endanger people or threaten structures and resources. Fires in tourist-heavy Yosemite Valley, for instance, are “very, very controlled,” said Tom Medema, Yosemite’s chief of interpretation and education.
Otherwise, park officials prefer to herd fires where they want them to go and allow blazes to burn out on their own.
It’s a science-based approach that serves the same function as off-season forest thinning and controlled burns. But those arguments often fail to stand up to public distaste for trees burning in beloved national parks.
The Yellowstone fires in 1988, most of which were touched off by lightning, began in June on a landscape hollowed out by drought. Park officials monitored the complex of fires and allowed them to burn unimpeded through the park for nearly a month. Haze from the fires reached the Midwest.
Amid mounting criticism, park officials patiently explained the agency’s “let it burn” approach, to little avail.
“In the national parks, a major part of our job is to protect a place so that nature can work,” Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said this week. “In many large parks in the West, fire is one way that nature works.”
But the park’s trial by fire brought about a reexamination. “It prompted everyone to step back and look at their approach,” Nash said.
Eventually, the Yellowstone fires required 25,000 personnel, including two battalions of Marines, and more than 10 million gallons of water.
The last flame was extinguished in mid-November 1988 — by rain and snow. The cost of the five-month firefighting effort came to $120 million.
And despite the arm-waving about the park service’s seemingly laissez-faire approach to fires, the policy remains in place.
But don’t expect to hear any park service employee utter “let it burn” again.
“Those are certainly three words you will never hear me say,” Nash said.