Yellowstone Fires and their Legacy

By Rocky Barker

Lightning hit a tree on May 24, 1988 and started a fire in the Lamar Valley near Rose Creek. Yellowstone National Park's first fire of the 1988 season was burning. A few hours later it ended as it had begun - naturally - when rain from the thunderstorm that spawned the fire snuffed it out. Most of you know the rest.

The 1988 fires in Yellowstone and across the Northern Rockies were the signal fires.

They signaled that we would live in a different world in the American West at the beginning of the 21st Century. It’s a human world designed for cooler, wetter times. The Yellowstone fires that burned more than a million acres in and around the park in 1988 were the signal fires of this new world.

Up to 2 million tons of particulates, 4.4 million tons of carbon monoxide, 129 tons of nitrogen oxide and 106 tons of hydrocarbons were released into the air and dropped in the form of air pollution as far away as the East Coast and Amarillo, Texas. Little Enough commercial timber to build 11,000 homes burned in surrounding national forests. Overall the fires cost $140 million, 14 times Yellowstone’s annual budget. Twenty-five thousand firefighters passed through the fires that season two died, one in plane crash and the other when a tee fell on him. Across the West 6 million acres burned, the most since the agencies began keeping good records in 1960. The 1988 fire season seemed an aberration. But 1988 set the signal fires for the climate change across the United States.

The year 1988 was among the hottest on record. The drought across North America was the worst since the 1930s. In the former Dust Bowl states from Montana to Nebraska, Kansas and Texas, farmers reported dark clouds of dust again as their topsoil blew away. By June 1 alone, the Soil Conservation Service estimated 12 million acres were damaged by wind erosion. Record temperatures hit cities across the country. American companies sold 4 million air conditioners and could not keep up with demand. Congress held hearings on the greenhouse effect and global warming. They were told by the nation’s top climatologists that it was likely that the climate was changing and that the burning of fossil fuels was the cause. But they weren’t ready to say they were confident it was happening.

Twenty years later years like 1988 are the norm and even former climate change skeptics acknowledge today the climate is changing and has been changing. In 2006, 9.5 million acres burned followed by 9.3 million acres in 2007. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its 2,500 scientists from around the world have concluded with a certainty of more than 90 percent that the wholesale burning of fossil fuels has contributed the warming, drying and longer fire seasons we are experiencing today. I covered the fires of 1988 as they started small in May and June then blew up into conflagrations like firefighters had not seen since Aug. 20-21 in 1910. On August 20, “Black Saturday,” 165,000 acres burned inside Yellowstone. A friend flying over it in a air plane said the convection clouds rising into the stratosphere from the firestorms that were creating their own weather made it appear that Yellowstone was under nuclear attack.

I got caught myself in one of those firestorms at Old Faithful Sept. 7 along with more than 1,000 tourists, rangers, concession employees and firefighters. It was an incredible sight with flames rising more than 200 feet in the air, firebrands as large as your fist blowing by your head and the fire sucking oxygen into its core, creating gale force winds and a noise like dozens of locomotives or a covey of jets flying over our heads. The fire forced me to run for my life to the relatively safety of the parking lot in front of the historic log Old Faithful Inn.

The Yellowstone fires signaled that nearly 100 years of wildland firefighting, begun in Yellowstone by the U.S. Army on Aug. 20, 1886, had made the forests more flammable and more dangerous. Foresters convinced Americans to set as a goal putting out all fires, especially removing fire from the ecosystem. Over a century these forests, most so unproductive they would never yield enough wood to pay for their management, filled with fuel, making them harder to protect, not easier. A team of scientists headed by forest engineer Anthony Westerling of the University of California-Merced released a landmark study in 2007 that says we are experiencing longer fire seasons, larger fires and more big fires because of climate change. The effects of climate change even overwhelmed decades of fire suppression and the build-up of fuel it created. If it continues, the forests, which today capture 20 to 40 percent of all of the carbon scientists say contributes to the climate’s change, will burn up and turn our forests from net carbon sinks to net carbon sources.

The 1988 fires actually reduced the use of fire to reduce forest fuels. Managers were more cautious even if they supported burning.

It wasn’t until 1994, when 14 firefighters died on Storm King Mountain next to Glenwood Springs Colorado, that the idea of allowing fires to burn once again gained credence, this time for firefighter safety. Fire bosses began to routinely pull firefighters off of fires to keep them safe. In some high elevation forests, managers used the safety policy to allow fires to spread across the landscape they could never have justified if they said they were letting it burn. Now with firefighters putting out 98 percent f the fires that start, fire seasons continue get bigger. The Bush Administration has instituted policies that recognize fire belongs on the landscape. They are telling firefighters to let some fires burn, carefully monitored not only for the health of the forest but also to save taxpayer money. But fire now costs the Forest Service half of its budget and it has to rob from recreation and forest thinning projects to pay for fire. Congress is trying to solve the problem by setting up a big fund to pay for firefighting. But it is not asking the fundamental question: Is our firefighting system logical?

Americans only joined the century-long debate 20 years ago. It’s taking us all time to catch up.

For the latest update go to the National Interagency Fire Center.

The fires in Greater Yellowstone in 1988 were the first of a series of huge natural events that changed the way Americans view nature and their control over it. I spent most of August and the first two weeks in September covering the fires in 1988.  Island/Shearwater Press has published my book, Scorched Earth: How the Fires in Yellowstone Changed America. It reaches back to the beginning of Yellowstone and how fires shaped conservation and environmental history.

The book also inspired the television movie: "Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone," on A&E Network starring Scott Foley and Richard Burgi.

The key lesson I have learned is the important role fires plays in western forest ecosystems. It is different in the higher elevation like Yellowstone where fire comes rarely but with ferocity. In the lower elevation ponderosa pine forests, fire was far more frequent before we came along. In 2002, we faced a threat across much of the region. Most seem to have forgotten the lessons of Yellowstone. 

The 1910 fires prompted a century of firefighters to see their task as the moral equivalent of war. For them and the nation Yellowstone was their Vietnam. The debate over Yellowstone was between allowing fires to burn or fighting them from the start. Yet today that debate has been largely resolved. Today the 20th Century’s fire suppression program in national forests and parks is universally challenged. Yet today firefighters are jumping on every fire at a rate even higher than in 1988. Still they can’t stop the fires they call catastrophic.  

Lost is the main lesson of Yellowstone when conditions are right no one can stop forest fires. Like floods man only can put off the inevitable. The current debate is over how much we allow nature to take its course and how much do we intrude. The issue is recognizing our limits to control it. In between lay the value judgments over where and how we can live with fire. A century of suppression has made conditions right in low elevation forest types that previously were relatively fireproofed by frequent fires. But Yellowstone’s high elevation forests are hard to get started but when they burn they usually burn big. Fighting fires there is not only wasteful but counterproductive. Lost also is the great waste of resources spent then and now to put out fires they know are beneficial, they can only hope to herd. The money would be better spent on clearing areas around homes and communities and on preventive burning and thinning where human values like commercial timberlands needs to be protected.  

Finally, 20 years later Yellowstone is still changing. Ecologists like Don Despain were largely proven right about the role of fire in ecosystem restoration. Their work and the growing public understanding of it is helping Americans learn a new story about fire.  

This rough, rough draft of a book I started in 1996 has been continuously revised in an effort to include the events since 1988. Check up on the current fire situation at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. Or check out Randal O'Toole's keen insight on fires at The Thoreau  Institute Fire site. 

I cover all of these subjects in my book but I suggest you also read  about the future of forestry in the  The Next West .

© Rocky Barker 2012



Chapter One: Man and Nature

Chapter Two: A Scientist and a Policy

Chapter Three: Small Beginnings

Chapter Four: Voices of Caution

Chapter Five: The Fire Takes Off

Chapter Six: Nothing Left to Burn

Chapter Seven: Humbled Finally

Chapter Eight: Confusion at Old Faithful

Chapter Nine: Evolving Fire Policy

Chapter Ten: The Legacy of 1988

Are we wasting billions fighting fires?

Phil Sheridan and fire policy

Todd Wilkinson remembers

Next fires anytime, all the time

How to make your home safe

Next stop: Idaho's Sawtooths

The signal fires of 1988

Fires of 2000

Key links for 2008 season

Yellowstone Experience

Fly Fishing Guide to Idaho

Northwest Experience
For more information on Northwest Experience, or to comment on this page write, call, or e-mail Rocky at: Northwest Experience, 2875 Harmony, Boise, ID 83706 1-(208)-363-0259