out of the Ashes:
BOZEMAN, MONTANA. September 15, 1989.
At this time, one year ago, the devastating Yellowstone Fires
of 1988 were coming to a close, as the cool, moist weather
of autumn replaced the drought-like conditions of summer.
Visitors to the park grieved as they drove past mile upon
mile upon mile of charred trees and ashen ground. As if the
fires hadn't done enough, the autumn rains caused more damage.
Many slopes — without their trees and ground cover that act
as soil anchors — became unstable, and the rains washed their
soils down the mountainsides and into rivers and streams.
Several landslides occurred during the heaviest rains, and
some flooding was reported in the valleys.
A bird in Egyptian mythology that lived in the desert
for 500 years and then consumed itself by fire, later
to rise, renewed, from its ashes.
Contrary to popular belief, the impact
of fire on wildlife was minimal. Most animals, biologists
explain, run for cover, burrow underground, or fly or walk
away from the flames. In the Yellowstone fires, they reported
the following casualties — five bison, some 245 elk, one
black bear, two moose, and four deer in the entire 325,000
burned hectares. In addition, cutthroat trout in the Little
Firehole River were killed, but not because of the flames
or heat. Fire retarding chemicals were accidentally dropped
into the water.
The destruction of two of the best known
species of trees in the forest, the ubiquitous lodgepole
pine and the lovely aspen, was widespread and severe. Lodgepoles
were especially vulnerable, being highly flammable. Yet
— and here the story begins to take a new twist — both
have mechanisms (resin-coated cones in the case of lodgepoles,
and root-climbing suckers in the case of aspens) to make
a quick comeback in the charred soil. Other species, such
as sub-alpine fir and Engelmann spruce, cannot tolerate
fire and cannot quickly recolonize. Because of this, most
grow only in places unlikely to burn, such as along streams.
Few of these trees were destroyed.
Did any good come out of this disaster;
are there any silver linings, to quote my grandmother? Biologists
report that immense quantities of debris no longer cover
the ground in the areas affected by the fire, and it is
unlikely that future Yellowstone fires will balloon into
such catastrophic proportions. More importantly, the burned
patches of forest are now starting on a new cycle of growth.
The ashes and warmer temperatures increased the amount of
food for fish in the streams.
Sun-hungry plants are now flourishing
in the former domain of shade trees, and birds are enjoying
new homes in decaying tree trunks. In the unpredictable
manner of wildfires, totally destroyed forest can be found
next to minimally burned and even untouched forest, and
this gives plants and animals in Yellowstone a greater variety
of habitats from which to choose.