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The Yellowstone Fires of 1988

Aerial Photo of the fire near Mirror Plateau.  Credit: NPS

Aerial Photo of the fire near Mirror Plateau. Credit: NPS

Feature

Author: TrailMob
Date: 02.29.16

On June 14, 1988, a small fire started on the banks of Storm Creek just north of Yellowstone National Park.  It could have been just like any fire, but it wasn’t.  Instead, that fire grew and joined with other fires that together continued burning in the park for an entire summer season.  These fires, collectively known as the Yellowstone Fires of 1988, would only be extinguished later in the fall, when cool wet weather finally reached Yellowstone National Park.  This is a brief account of what happened during those brutal months, mistakes made, and some lessons learned.

The Yellowstone Fires of 1988 would affect roughly 794,000 acres (around 36% of the entire park).  Yet oddly enough, only 300 large mammals were considered to have perished on account of the fires, it seemed the animals were able to live in relative harmony with the fire as it burned.  The same can be said for for park visitation, as Yellowstone saw more than 2.6 million people visit in the year following the fires—a record number of visitors at the time.

When the fires began that summer, the National Park Service was operating under a fire policy adopted in 1972.  Relevantly, this policy stated that naturally caused lightning fires were allowed to burn without interference so long as they were in remote areas.  Until the Yellowstone Fires of 1988 this policy seemed to work well, with over three-quarters of "remote" fires extinguishing themselves naturally.  However, as Park Superintendent Robert Barbee perhaps puts it best “all the models that had existed prior to 1988 went out the window in 1988.  The fire just went right through everything.”  (NYT Retro Report).

There are multiple reasons the Yellowstone Fires of 1988 defied the models and led Park Superintendent Barbee to ultimately suspend existing policy and order on July 21 that all fires be fought aggressively.  For example, past winters in the park had been relatively dry, though these were typically made up for with wet summers.  In fact, the summer of 1988 was expected to be wet as well, but very little rainfall actually arrived.  The vast lodgepole pine forests of the park (roughly 80% of the park is forested, primarily with lodgepole pine) were unusually dry.  To make matters worse, Pine Beetle infestations in the preceding decades had left large swaths of dead and dying trees.   Yellowstone in 1988 was a tinderbox, all that was missing was a spark.

This is exactly what happened on August 20, “Black Saturday” also known as the single worst day of the Yellowstone Fire, during which more than 150,000 acres were consumed.  Crown fires were responsible for much of the devastation, whipped by high winds, fires were able to jump established fire lines, sometimes spreading more than a mile ahead of its origin.  

Despite the herculean efforts of the more than 25,000 people involved in the fire and more than $120 million spent fighting the fires, it ultimately took another act of Mother Nature to bring the fires to a close.  On September 11 rain and snow began to fall in Yellowstone, which extinguished much of the fire which allowed firefighters to take final measures to contain the fire (though hot spots would remain for months).  

Map of the Yellowstone Fires of 1988

Map of the Yellowstone Fires of 1988

Speculation of the Fire’s lasting impact, much of which sensationalized by the media, ran rampant.  Many believed Yellowstone would never recover to its former glory without significant intervention.  These theories were quickly dismissed, as new life was seen sprouting from the ashen soil within weeks and months of the last flames passing through.  In fact, it came to be understood that the Fires’ primary fuel source, the Lodgepole Pine, was remarkably adapted to survive wildfire as their cones are sealed by a resin that is only penetrated by the intense head of fire which releases the seeds contained inside.  Surveys conducted after the fire revealed that a mere 1% of the soil had been heated to a temperature sufficient to destroy other seeds and root systems.

Visit Yellowstone National Park today and you can see firsthand the lasting effects the Fires of 1988.

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The Yellowstone Fire threatening iconic Old Faithful.  Credit: NPS

The Yellowstone Fire threatening iconic Old Faithful. Credit: NPS