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From the signal fires of Yellowstone to the megafires of today

Updated: May 15

Sept. 7, 1988 at Old Faithful

Giant wildfires, megafires, have burned across the United States and Canada the last several years as the world has seen the warmest temperatures in recorded history.

These hot, dry and windy conditions were rare through most of the 20th Century so wildfire fighting agencies like the U.S. Forest Service reached by the 1950s the illusion that they could control fire, tame it with technology and raw human will. By the 1960s foresters and ecologists began recognizing that their success in suppressing fire was transforming forests and filling them with fuel that made fires larger and more dangerous.

When I arrived in the West in the 1980s, timber companies and environmentalists were fighting over logging, using much the same language as when Forest Service Founder Gifford Pinchot and Preservationist John Muir clashed in the beginning of the century. What was better, a managed forest or a natural one? Loggers said active management, which in their mind meant logging and perhaps mechanical thinning, needed to be employed to reduce the fuels. Environmentalists wanted natural or prescribed fires to be used. on these dense groves of firs and pines.

What both sides didn’t see in the 1980s was that the human touch left its mark over the entire planet. The fires and ecological processes we assumed were natural had already fallen under the influence of human civilization's dependence on fossil fuels. Scientists had evidence of the so-called greenhouse effect,” in 1970 when the Nixon Administration released a report on how carbon dioxide and other gases produced by burning fossil fuels could warm the planet, melt the icecaps and cause the sea to rise.

Climatologists were beginning to form a consensus by the late 1970s. But the pivotal year was 1988. That year people began to see that our world was getting dryer and hotter. The drought that year 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.

 James Hansen, then an obscure NASA climatologist, warned Congress for the first time that there was clear evidence that greenhouse gases were increasing in the atmosphere and warming the globe. Then Yellowstone started burning. The National Park Service had a “natural” fire policy, allowing fires started by lightning to burn. When hundreds of thousands of acres burned in and around Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks the national debate was over the so-called let burn policy.

Like today in California and Oregon old time foresters and loggers were saying the answer was more management, Environmentalists were saying fire was a natural part of the system. I can’t remember anyone that tied the Yellowstone fires to the climate change that Hansen was warning Congress about.

In the early 1990s Monica Turner, a University of Wisconsin ecologist suggested the frequency of fires in Yellowstone was changing from hundreds of years to decades. She predicted the entire forest ecosystem there would change from lodgepole, which thrives in the relatively wet high elevation to ponderosa pine, which dominates dry lower elevation sites.  That when it became clear. Yellowstone was the signal fire of our new world.

For the next 32 years the West the sight of giant clouds rising high into the atmosphere from the front of firestorms more powerful than nuclear bombs became routine. The fire season expanded by 70 days.

In 1991, hundreds of homes were destroyed in Oakland. Large fires in 2003 and 2007 each destroyed thousands of homes in Southern California. More fires burned through Colorado Springs; Yarnell, Ariz.; Los Alamos, N.M.; San Diego; Los Angeles; Twisp, Wash.; Gatlinburg, Tenn.; Santa Rosa, Paradise and in 2021 into the suburbs of Los Angles and Portland. Beginning in 2016, megafires burned throughout northern Canada.

Nearly 70 percent of Southern Idaho national forests have burned in the past 30 years. Millions of acres of rangeland have burned, often multiple times in that period. Dick Bahr, who ran aviation firefighting resources in Yellowstone in 1988  told me before he retired that if I liked my life in Boise, I might think about moving to Coeur d’Alene because Idaho forests are going to follow in the same direction.

Today there is a new consensus that we need to use both thinning, logging and prescribed burning both to reduce the ferocity of the fires. But we need to be realistic about what we can expect and about what we can do to reduce the threat of megafires. We put out 97 percent or more of U.S. wildfires while they’re small. The 3 percent we can’t stop grow into these megafires, fueled by conditions like we saw in 2023 across Canada: high winds, low humidity, high temperatures.

We can steer these fires away from our communities, and through management we can make them less severe. But we will have to learn to live with a level of fire we never envisioned in the decades before Yellowstone’s fires captured the nation’s attention.

“Clearly we don’t have a choice,” said Penny Morgan, a fire ecologist at the University of Idaho, whose career has spanned this era of megafires. “Having no fire or no smoke is not one of our options.”

These megafires are not natural disasters. They are the totally predictable effect of the burning of fossil fuels and the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere now at 417 parts per billion, so high we can expect even more devastating effects, like rapid rising oceans and the flooding of lowlands in countries like Bangladesh and Mozambique.

Boise is the fastest growing city in the country and most of our new residents are coming from California, the American version of climate refugees. Where will the people in Bangladesh go?

Yes we need to get to zero carbon as soon as possible. We have to develop new technology that might even pull carbon from the ecosystem. But most of all we must adapt because the smoke, the flames, the landslides, the drought, the hurricanes and the rising sea level are here to stay for long time.

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