by Emily Sloan, ’05, ’06
Twenty years ago, America’s most beloved natural treasure went up in flames. If you watched the U.S. news during the summer of 1988, chances are you remember the image of an impossibly high wall of fire engulfing Yellowstone National Park’s subalpine forest and spewing clouds of turbid grey smoke into the sky above. The media inundated their reports with such apocalyptic pictures. Although forest fires had swept through the western landscape for millennia, they had never before captured the collective American imagination so vividly. But now, Yellowstone, the world’s oldest national park and most renowned wilderness icon, was ablaze. Across the U.S., citizens responded with panic, awe and anger that park managers could allow such a disaster to occur. Now that two decades have passed since that summer, it is worth reflecting on responses to the fire. Why did the public, the media and land managers behave as they did? To what extent has the experience influenced perceptions of forest fires today?
Fire played a relatively minor role on the Yellowstone stage during the first hundred years of the park’s existence. Established in 1872, when the states it now comprises were recognized only as territories, Yellowstone became an emblem of America’s pristine and proud national heritage. Although park policy included fire suppression as early as 1886, suppression efforts remained fairly ineffectual until after World War II. What’s more, they were short-lived. By 1972, Yellowstone officials had agreed to allow lightning-caused fires to burn naturally, provided that they met certain criteria.
The “let it burn” policy reflected growing understanding of fire management effects, roughly summarized here: Suppression leads to build-up of fuels on the forest floor, which magnifies the intensity and devastation of fires when they occur. Management plans should favor frequent, low intensity fires over infrequent, catastrophic fires, since the former are more “natural” and controllable than the latter. The first 16 years of Yellowstone’s “let it burn” policy seemed to assuage any trepidation about unstoppable fires. During that time, fires remained small, the largest scorching an area of just 8,100 acres.
Then came 1988, and everything changed. The year started off like any other, with a pair of relatively minor lightning-caused fires that were allowed to burn unfettered. When these fires expanded to cover 25,000 acres, representing the largest area burned in a single season for over a hundred years, managers remained fairly unconcerned. By mid-summer, however, a brutal drought and unusually high winds had set in. More fires started, and various blazes began to merge, creating mega-fires that began behaving in erratic ways.
By late July, 115,000 acres had already burned. Still, many park managers felt optimistic, believing that the park’s abundance of healthy, green wood would hinder the fire’s spread. But these managers had underestimated both the detrimental effects of bark beetles and blister rust on the area’s lodge pole pine stands and the power of the season’s incredible winds. When air currents propelled one blaze across the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a massive natural chasm 1,400 feet across at its narrowest point, managers realized that they were dealing with a truly extraordinary fire season.
Park Superintendent Bob Barbee faced the daunting challenge of protecting the public and historic buildings while bearing the brunt of outcry from the general population and pressure from within his own agency. The fires posed substantial hazards to gateway communities, including Cooke City, Wyoming, which earned the nickname “Cooked City” as the flames encroached. Furthermore, the fires threatened to raze numerous historic buildings counted among Yellowstone’s major attractions.
Barbee oversaw a massive suppression effort, including about 25,000 firefighters. However, he largely resisted the considerable public pressure to dig wide fire lines with machinery like bulldozers, out of concern for their heavy ecological footprint. He also kept the park open to the public, and the media, throughout the incendiary summer. In the end, it was not human effort but the autumn snows that extinguished the blazes. All told, the fires impacted over a million acres, approximately half of the park’s acreage. Incredibly, all of the major historic structures survived intact, as did the neighboring communities.
According to Jay A. Satz, SCA’s Vice President for Western Initiatives, the unusual opportunity for the media to have frontline access to wild land fire fighting efforts contributed significantly to the public’s outrage over the fires in Yellowstone. Several major television networks, CNN among them, basically set up camp in the park as the fires evolved. Through apocalyptic imagery, hyperbolic language and sobering nightly updates, they portrayed the blaze as catastrophic, leading Americans to believe that the park, once scorched, would somehow be destroyed forever.
The public’s impassioned reaction, then, was perhaps unsurprising. There were demands that the Park Service rally more resources, bulldoze huge firelines, do whatever was necessary to arrest the inferno, without any real understanding of the futility of such an effort. Satz credits Superintendent Barbee for sticking to his guns and continuing to prioritize ecosystem health over his personal political popularity.
It turns out that Barbee’s instincts were sound. The years immediately after the fires saw the park’s ecosystems rebound with vigor. Regrowth even came to the areas hardest hit by the fires. The “theory” that Yellowstone’s lodgepole pine forests require infrequent, stand-replacing fires to maintain optimal health was clearly proven. Scientific evidence shows that such fires blew through the area once every 100-500 years. Thus, the 1988 season, if nothing else, reminds us of the complexity of fire ecology and the need for highly localized, science-based management schemes to responsibly manage our public lands.
While the scientific community studied post-fire Yellowstone, the public also came in droves, witnessing verdant rebirth where they perhaps expected to find devastation. Satz sees 1988 as an ultimately positive time for both the ecosystem and for public education, one that cemented the importance of fire in natural ecosystems in land agency policy and even in the general population’s hearts and minds.
As wildfire becomes a permanent fixture in the western U.S., the legacy of the Yellowstone fires may only gain significance. Increased bark beetle infestations and climate change mean that fires will likely be more frequent and more severe. To the extent that 1988’s events eventually promoted understanding among land managers and citizens, they have also helped prepare us to rationally face the no doubt challenging future in our dry western lands.
[Many thanks to Jay A. Satz, SCA’s Vice-President of Western Initiatives, for sharing his considerable experience and knowledge of Yellowstone and the fires with the author.]
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