Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1988, more than thirty percent of Yellowstone National Park – known as the “Wonderland of the West” – turned into a raging inferno. After a wet spring, drought struck the park in June, leading to the driest summer in the park’s history. By the end of July, a combination of dry tinder, lightning, high winds, and the human effects of outfitters and woodcutters had caused a series of separate fires to join together and burn out of control.
(Bison in front of burning lodgepole pines in 1988.)
By the time firefighters and cooler fall weather managed to douse the fires, 793,880 acres had been damaged with an estimated $3 million dollars in property damage. Fortunately, however, the fires killed no park visitors or nearby residents (two firefighters sadly lost their lives outside of the park), wildlife populations rebounded quickly, and the affected areas of the park are now covered by swathes of healthy, thirty-year-old trees.
Volunteers Coming Together
While the fires were devastating, their aftermath brought hope. America’s volunteer spirit was galvanized like never before, with some 10,000 people uniting to restore one of the country’s great parks – the largest cooperative effort of its kind in the United States to date. Among them was Liz Putnam, founder of the Student Conservation Association.
At the age of 55, Putnam was much older than the typical SCA recruit, but the need for volunteers outweighed the need for youth; when her acceptance letter arrived in the mail, she was so excited that she “skipped down the driveway.” Putnam joined the work crew incognito, putting in long days hauling out destroyed sections of a burned-out bridge before building it anew. She was, in the words of a recent retrospective profile in Yankee Magazine, “covered in soot, sore, tired, and elated.”
(SCA Greater Yellowstone Recovery Corps.)
Working to restore Yellowstone proved to be literally life-changing for many SCA volunteers. One of them was Aaron Bible, who worked on a park crew the following summer. “Many bridges and trails were destroyed by the fires the previous year. My crew primarily worked on rebuilding trail by reconstructing check dams and water bars, utilizing downed timber in the area,” he recalls. “Learning the skills of bushcraft, long-term camping, trail building and tool care, not to mention sheer hard work, had a huge impact on my life.” Bible went on to study forestry at Colorado State University and has remained in the field of ecology ever since.
SCA Takes the Lead in Fire-Prevention Training
A generation later, SCA has augmented its programming related to wildfire prevention and park restoration beyond its traditional park crews. Here are a few of the key programs.
This program, administered by the National Park Service (NPS), prepares interns to protect our nation’s most precious sites. Participants complete a structural fire protection review of a historical building, assess the risks, and recommend mitigation strategies.
Designed for students in fire protection engineering or fire administration studies, the program also trains interns to develop fire inspection and evacuation plans. Interns learn to teach classes on how to use portable fire extinguishers, create a hot work (welding and soldering, for example) permit program, and review new construction plans. Interns have worked at national parks including Bryce Canyon, the Great Smoky Mountains and, yes, Yosemite. Best of all, if selected through SCA, students receive a weekly stipend, no-cost housing, and a travel stipend, as well as being eligible for a $1,200 scholarship.
(Fire burning around a cabin at Jewel Cave National Monument in South Dakota to slow the fire’s progress toward the building—taken in 2009.)
In this pilot program, SCA has teamed up with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). Following two-weeks of firefighter training, a work-capacity test, and trail management and maintenance education, interns spend another 14 weeks in the field, implementing what they’ve learned. In the summer of 2018, 15 individual interns served at 10 forest units in the southeastern U.S.
As this was wildfire season, an added benefit to both the interns and the country was the opportunity to be placed on active duty (AD) status to acquire hands-on experience: in total, interns spent a cumulative 404 days on active-duty status. The program, currently being trialed in the Forest Service’s Southeast Region 8, provides a $500 weekly living allowance, a $650 travel allowance, valuable certifications, and the opportunity to qualify for Public Land Corps Hiring Authority, giving them eligibility to apply to merit vacancy announcements for two years with the federal government.
(Prescribed Fire at Osceola National Forest in Florida.)
Based primarily in Alaska, these teams offer participants the opportunity to work in trail construction and maintenance, invasive species removal and – crucially for wildfire management – fuels reduction. Team members receive their red card, chainsaw certification, and medical training. Teams are active in a number of the state’s spectacular national parks and forests, including the Chugach National Forest and Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias, Kenai Fjords, Lake Clark, Glacier Bay, and Klondike Gold Rush National Parks. In addition to Alaska, crews have also worked in the Karl E. Mundt National Wildlife Refuge and Lake Andes Wetland Management District in Southeast South Dakota, and in the Los Padres National Forest in California.
In conjunction with The Nature Conservatory, SCA offers a training and mentoring program for underserved urban youth, offering them the opportunity to work shoulder to shoulder with fire professionals from the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and state and private organizations. Crews conduct prescribed burns, prepare fire lines, and complete other conservation tasks, gaining experience with a high volume of fires and different fuel types while earning the National Wildfire Coordinating Group certification, the industry standard recognized by all federal and state agencies.
Founded in 2010 in association with the U.S. Forest Service, the Veterans Fire Corps trains post-9/11 military veterans to work in mitigating wildland fires. These thirteen-week crews participate in fuels reduction and prescribed fires, prepare pre-fire burn units, monitor the effects of fires, and perform educational outreach. In addition to their practical field experience, members receive valuable training in wildfires, chainsaw use, and inter-personal skills such as leadership, group dynamics, and conflict management. Benefits include travel and living allowances, $1,200 worth of certifications, $1,515 in AmeriCorps Education Awards to apply to future study, and an open door to a career in forestry and wildland fires.
(Member of the SCA Veterans Fire Corps.)
Wildfires vs. Forest Fires
Wildfires are fires that, like those in Yellowstone in 1988, burn out of control. Forest fires are fires which, either natural or prescribed, are necessary to reduce flammable fuel loads, maintain biodiversity, or rehabilitate vegetation after an environmental disturbance.
Thirty Years on in Yellowstone
“Thirty years ago,” writes Darrell Ehrlick in The Billings Gazette, “we were sure the stories we’d be telling today would be of a park still struggling to regain its footing during a long, slow recovery. Today, we’re telling the story of a park so beautiful, so vibrant, and so popular that there’s talk of now of limiting the number of people visiting…Today, I feel a different sense of relief — grateful that I get to subject my children to those same yearly journeys with a park that looks like it did when I was their age.”
(Firefighter Gillian Bowser in a Yellowstone forest with small fire in 1988.)
Yellowstone’s comeback is due, in part, to the incredible resilience of nature. But it is also the story of a national and international reserve of volunteers and professionals, firefighters and rangers and everyday park-goers, who joined together to bring “Wonderland” back to life. And, as wildfires resurge each summer across much of the west, that work is never less urgent than today.
SCA volunteers have assisted with the restoration of affected parks before and, with your help, we will be ready to respond again when our partners need us.
Your donation supports wildfire prevention and park restoration programs at SCA—and it also provides young people the opportunity to serve their community after a disaster. Help protect and restore public lands with your donation.
Are you interested in learning more about wildfire prevention and management? Click on any of the programs listed above, or click here to find our Positions Page and enter “fire” in the keyword section.