WASHINGTON -- Until last month, the National Park Service had been sharply increasing the number of fires set to clear brush and rehabilitate landscapes, tripling the area burned in just four years.
That changed when a fire set at Bandelier National Monument got out of control, leading to an inferno that destroyed more than 200 homes in Los Alamos, N.M., and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt halted all ''prescribed fires'' by the Park Service in the West indefinitely, saying an investigation found ''serious systemic problems in the way the Park Service conducts prescribed burns.''
Park Service Director Robert Stanton told a House panel last week that the agency is changing its policies and training to prevent similar problems.
It was Babbitt who changed policy in 1995 to encourage use of such fires.
Congressional critics say federal land managers should rely more on ''mechanical thinning'' -- using people and machines to cut down trees and undergrowth. Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, R-Idaho, said the Clinton administration relies too much on prescribed fires because of a ''dogmatic, anti-science, anti-technology, anti-people bias.''
''Fire alone is not sufficient to the task,'' she said.
But forestry experts say that when properly monitored, prescribed fires are among the best and cheapest ways to prevent catastrophic wildfires.
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