I've always considered Irwin Allen disaster movies to be the worst movies about disasters ever made. Among these was "Towering Inferno," which depicted structural firefighting so inaccurately that it seems if was purposely written to be as far from the truth as possible.
I spent my career with the U.S. Forest Service, which is not the agency represented in the movie, rather it is the National Park Service (NPS) that manages the National Parks. I worked closely with the NPS as the National Forests I worked on bordered National Parks and have had a interest in fire ecology since high school, with a career that allowed me to gain a great deal of knowledge and experience on the subject from 1968 to the present.
It is a misnomer that the NPS had a "let burn" policy, in spite of it being widely reported that way. The fires of 1988 were being managed under a natural fire policy and fires were only allowed to burn under prescribed conditions. This policy had been in place for 16 years prior to 1988. During this period only 15 fires became larger than 100 acres. All of these went out on their own. As a Park Ranger I worked with said, who had spent 10 years at Yellowstone, you could not have burned 1/4 acre with a 55 gallon drum of fuel mix (used to start prescribed fires). This is because the Yellowstone Plateau is normally wetter than the rest of the west.
The spring of 1988 was wetter than average. On July 15th 11 of the 20 early season fires had gone out and only 8,500 acres had burned. Then the driest summer in the park's history began, a event no one could have predicted.
I spent five weeks in Yellowstone in 1988 as a crew boss, supervising an Army fire crew.Within two days of arriving there I had the same conclusion the other other 2 crew bosses and the leader of our strike team did. By looking at tree species composition and their ages it appeared as though most of the park had burned naturally 300-500 years prior. All of us had enough education and training sufficient to make this situation as obvious as reading a sign place in front of our faces. Subsequent research has shown 3 cycles of natural widespread, high intensity fires burning every 300-500 years, evidence of fires prior to those three cycles is no longer available. From this one could conclude that dry years like 1988 occur once every 300-500 years. These large fires are very important for wildlife habitat as large, thick forests of Lodgepole pine are not beneficial for the large mammals in the park, particularly elk. The 1988 fires and the reintroduction of the wolf, the natural predator of the elk, has reduced their population to a natural level and the culling of weaker animals has increased the health of the entire population.
The largest of the 1988 fires, the North Fork fire, was over 500,000 acres in size. Unlike the remainder of the fires that summer, this one was human caused. A woodcutter on the adjacent Targhee National Forest threw out a cigarette started the fire. A full suppression (put it out now) response began immediately. Due to the dryness of the summer those efforts were in vain. This is the fire I spent my five weeks on. It was the largest of the summer and had nothing to do with a "let burn" policy.
This movie shows that the producers are completely ignorant of any of this. I would be very surprised if they even cared.
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