Wildland Fire History — Blazing New Trails for Wildland Fire Management

Originally published April 1989 in Courier: News Magazine of the National Park Service. Reprinted to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1988 Yellowstone Fires.

By: Walt Dabney

Believe it or not, Yellowstone did not invent fire. Nor was the National Park Service single-handedly responsible for every fire that burned between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean last summer.

What the national park system did confront was more than a thousand fires that burned approximately one-fifth of the 5 million acres of Western state and federal lands that burned during 1988.

But while millions of dollars worth of residential property was destroyed in areas of California and South Dakota, very little such property was lost in the Greater Yellowstone area.

So why was the focus last summer almost exclusively on the National Park Service?

Because the “world's national park” was on fire.

I can't think of another non-urban location that could generate the same international concern, nor sustain the same media interest. The fires of 1988, which burned 5 million acres, were not terribly different in scope from the fires of 1986, which burned 4.7 million acres. The last four years have all set records in modern fire history. But this year is going to have an especially significant effect on the Service's fire management program.

Because of public and political interest in fire as a result of Yellowstone, some very positive developments can be expected in the NPS fire program. They are underway now, and involve program management, funding of the fire program at an appropriate level, and refinement of the way we do business.

Following the past fire season, the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture appointed a group to review Park Service and Forest Service policies as these apply to fire management. Prescribed natural fire received special focus. Although the group's recommendations now await public conunent, a finished document should provide agencies with solid direction for improving both prescription and suppression fire operations.

Some obvious improvements should come in better cooperation between or among land management agencies with contiguous borders. Resource management could be improved and cost reductions realized by working together to insure consistency of approach, and, where possible, using topographic boundaries instead of political ones to manage fires.

The scope and complexity of the Service's needs in prescribed fire are much greater than we now have staff and funds to accomplish. We know from Everglades, Sequoia and Yosemite experience that we can generally conduct prescribed hums cheaper than we can suppress wildfires over the long term. In the Everglades, for example, the Service has been conducting prescribed burns for more than thirty years. During that period, the average cost per acre for prescription burning was approximately $8, while the average cost for suppression was approximately $40. Although it's true that Everglades is not a Western forest, a positive, cost-effective relationship can be shown in Yosemite and Sequoia as well. Overall, we burn about 29,000 acres in 69 park areas annually. We have a new, cyclic, hazard-fuels inventory process that allows us to establish priorities for needed burns.

When we talk of hazard-fuel reduction in the Service, we are concerned with fuel buildups that threaten life and property. We are also looking at hazard fuels build-ups, or the absence of fire because of past suppression efforts, each as threats to natural systems, including endangered species. The NPS backlog of needed burns in many areas is well beyond the capability of the existing trained staff to complete. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that much of the Service's current fire program is managed and supervised as a collateral duty by those who often have many other significant duties.

In 1982, the Service began identifying its needs for normal year, pre–suppression fire programming and implementing FIREPRO, short for “fire programming”. The FY 1990 budget proposal has approximately $11.2 million identified for fire management and pre-suppression, and approximately $10.2 million for suppression. The really important figure to us is the first one. Increased funds in this account should allow the Park Service to create a base-funded program with fully dedicated fire personnel where needed, an adequate, cyclic prescribed-fire fund, an adequate equipment-replacement fund, appropriate initial-attack capabilities, expanded monitoring resources for prescribed fire, training suppport, and computer support. This evolution is called FIREPRO III in the National Park Service. The Department of Interior, including BLM, BIA and USFWS, are all included in the FY 1990 budget, and use this same basic approach.

The last four years have shown us areas where we need to focus our attention. FIREPRO III will give us the ability to accomplish what needs to be done. Over the last three years, most NPS firefighters have helped other agencies within the inter-agency framework to fight fires. In 1988, it was our turn. While the Service has many trained firefighters, few qualify for positions above crew boss, including Class I and II fire management overhead positions. The Service will be identifying the number and types of overhead positions we need, then working on a system to insure we develop these positions continuously.

Overall, the last four years have been positive ones for the Service's fire program. Though we plan for normal year fires, it is interesting to note that we now have had four “worst case” seasons in a row. With a fully funded and staffed fire program, we should be able to reduce the suppression dollars spent over the next ten years. This goal can be achieved by an active prescribed fire program and a strong suppression capability.

Without losing sight of what the last four fire seasons have taught us, we must focus on improving our ability to fulfill this agency's resource management and protection responsibilities in the future. Exciting opportunities for the fire program abound, opportunities that could lead to a more balanced, environmentally sound program that professionally meets the mandated objectives of the agency. It is up to us to meet the challenge.

Walt Dabney [was] chief, Ranger Activities, in Washington, D.C.

Last updated: January 6, 2017