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Congressmen rip Park Service for huge Calif. blaze

Posted: October 24, 2012 9:00 p.m.
Updated: October 24, 2012 9:00 p.m.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Two California congressmen blasted the National Park Service on Wednesday for letting a wildfire burn despite extreme conditions last summer, a decision that conflicted with the practices of other state and federal agencies.

U.S. Reps. Wally Herger and Tom McClintock, both Republicans from Northern California, criticized Lassen Volcanic National Park officials for decisions that allowed the Reading fire to eventually erupt into an inferno that scorched more than 42 square miles and cost $15 million to suppress.

It destroyed private property, hurt the region's logging industry and devastated prime tourism destinations in an area known for its remote beauty.

Herger said the officials responsible should be removed and changes made to the national policy that uses managed wildfires as a tool to clear out forests and improve wildlife habitat.

"The professionals I heard from are astonished that the Reading fire was allowed to burn in the middle of the summer ... with conditions across the West primed for a terrible fire season," Herger said.

McClintock used the hearing to advocate for a resumption of widespread logging. He said clear-cutting can have the same effect as fires that leave behind a "moonscape" of devastation, though he later said he is not advocating clear-cutting as a forestry practice. Massive wildfires cause air pollution, environmental damage and threaten people and wildlife, McClintock said.

"Any squirrel fleeing a fire knows this," he said, "which leads me to the unflattering but inescapable conclusion that today our forest management policy is in the hands of people who lack the simple common sense that God gave a squirrel."

McClintock said the current policy is that "we have to destroy the forest in order to save it," a notion that he described as "New Age nonsense."

Bill Kaage, the park service's Wildland Fire Branch chief, generally defended the decisions but said park officials intend to learn from the fire. Park officials should have done a better job of coordinating with other federal, state and local agencies and area residents, he acknowledged, and other lessons may come from an internal review due to be completed next month.

Though the fire jumped the park's boundary and blazed out of control, no structures were damaged and there was just one minor injury, he said.

"We do take our responsibility very seriously," said Kaage, the only park official to testify.

He would not comment after the two-hour hearing, referring questions to Parks Service spokeswoman Roberta D'Amico. She said she did not know what sensitive areas of the park had been affected by the wildfire, and referred questions to Lassen spokeswoman Karen Haner. She did not return repeated telephone messages, and other park officials said she was the only one who could discuss the damage.

Park Service officials' decision conflicted with the U.S. Forest Service's practice last summer of quickly putting out fires because of extraordinarily dry conditions across the West, testified Joe Millar, the agency's Fire and Aviation Management director for the region that covers California. The two federal agencies differ over their approaches to fighting wildfires and have had previous conflicts over the matter throughout the West.

Andy McMurry, deputy director for fire protection for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the decision to treat the lightning-caused fire as a timber management tool came "at an inopportune time" and ran counter to his agency's policy of quickly stamping out every fire before it could spread.

Kaage said park officials followed the same federal wildfire policy used by the Forest Service and other federal agencies and stuck to their own fire management plan when they decided to monitor what began as a remote, low level, half-acre fire. The only difference is that the Forest Service makes fire management decisions at the regional level, while the Parks Service leaves those decisions to local officials, he said in supporting that local control.

Similar managed fires burned uneventfully this summer in Yosemite and Rocky Mountain national parks, Kaage said, and even seemingly devastated areas recover in time from fires that are a natural and inescapable part of the Western landscape.

"Fire is a very high-risk, high consequence endeavor," he said. "With that high risk, there are successful outcomes and outcomes that are less than successful."

The review was requested by angry Shasta County supervisors and came after a former Forest Service official criticized the Park Service for its handling of the fire.

The fire jumped its perimeter a week after it began. At one point it threatened nearly 150 homes and 50 commercial properties.

The park is surrounded by generally poor communities that used to rely on the timber industry but now survive on the brief summer tourist season, testified Pam Giacomini, a business owner who has been elected to the Shasta County Board of Supervisors. The fire "cost them dearly," she said, suggesting that park officials be required to compensate local businesses for their economic losses.

Those communities saw no economic benefit from the fire but would from a resurgent timber industry, said Giacomini and others.

No witnesses spoke in favor of the park service's decision.



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