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Yellowstone Forest Fires
Forest Fires
I. How They Work
II. Fire Management
I. Map of Yellowstone
II. Yellowstone Fire
III. One Year After
IV. Six Years After

Earth Sys. Analysis
Yellowstone Fire Analysis
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One Year After
Phoenix Rises out of the Ashes:

Phoenix: 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.

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.

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.

Review Questions

  1. When combined with atmospheric conditions after the fires, how did the 1988 forest fires impact the lithosphere and hydrosphere?
  2. What were the effects of the 1988 forest fires on the biosphere?
  3. Provide a list and description of the positive outcomes from the 1988 forest fire (in your description be sure to identify the sphere impacted).