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It Really Has Been 30 Years Since the Big Fires in Yellowstone

August 13th, 2018 by Park County Travel Council | Be the first to comment!

Do you remember what you were doing 30 years ago?

I sure do.

For me the summer of 1988 was comprised of listening to Dan Miller 45’s, listening to Dan Miller on my transistor radio and monitoring the fires in Yellowstone National Park.

Yes, there are fires every year in the park and throughout the West. The good folks of California are going through an especially active and tragic fire season this year, but it is always a matter of how much acreage is going to burn, not if there will be fires.

Fire is nature’s way of cleaning out old unhealthy forests. Trees die on their own or develop disease, and a fire that burns through a forest doesn’t really “destroy” it. Forests regenerate, and we view them as in different stages at any given time.

Look at Yellowstone. We spent decades doing our best to suppress fires when they would start. In our minds it was only logical that you stop—or preferably prevent, according to Smokey Bear—fires. We still do our best to prevent human-caused fires, but we look at natural occurrences like lightning-started blazes differently.

The 1988 Yellowstone fires played a key role in our evolving approach. That summer was hot and dry with snow melting very early. Fire suppression and weather combined to create an enormous amount of fuel, and both man-made and naturally occurring fires resulted in 793,000 acres burning inside the park.

Fire encroaches upon Old Faithful Village during the 1988 forest fires.

As the fires approached Old Faithful Village in September of 1988, firefighters focused their efforts on historic structures.

There was simply no way to just put out these fires. Instead, resources were concentrated to save historic structures like the Old Faithful Inn. When the blazes made their way through Old Faithful Village on Sept. 7 that summer, heroic efforts kept the Inn and other structures like the Hamilton Store and Old Faithful Lodge safe.

A firefighter sprays water on the Old Faithful Inn to protect the structure from fire.

Firefighters protect the Old Faithful Inn.

Here in northern Wyoming, including Yellowstone, most of the trees are lodgepole pines. These trees grow in very dense groups, and the tallest and strongest trees survive, leaving plenty of less fortunate trees to die and create that fuel I keep mentioning.

Lodgepole seeds are contained inside cones that are covered with a resin, and these cones do not open easily unless heat melts the resin to release seeds. The only way to clean out the dead trees and the old trees while spreading those millions of seeds inside the cones is through fire.

New growth in a forest after a fire.

New growth is contrasted by trees killed in the fires.

In California the types of pine tree are more diverse, but like most Western states, trees are being killed by bark beetles. I saw that California alone had some 66 million dead trees. Overgrowth and beetle-killed trees are fueling these fires.

People who have lost their homes because of forest fires have my complete sympathy, but the forests that replace the burned areas will be much healthier for many decades to come. I see it in Yellowstone every time I drive through certain areas.

As you travel the West, you will see haze and possibly smell smoke. Don’t think of these forests as being destroyed; they are just going through one of their stages.

Come back in 20 or 30 years, and you will understand even better.

Until next week, I am lovin’ life – and thinking about the fires of ’88 – in Cody, Wyo.


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