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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
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Yellowstone Fire

Headlines: Fires Lay Waste to Yellowstone National Park
BOZEMAN, MONTANA. September 30, 1988. More than half of Yellowstone National Park has gone up in flames this summer in an unprecedented series of wildfires that have claimed 650,000 hectares of the region's forest.

Park Observer Reporter's Log:
Yellowstone National Park, summer 1998

B.C.: Before Combustion

June 1, 1988
As Memorial Day weekend marked the start of the summer season at Yellowstone National Park, park officials looked less than enthusiastic. Could it be the weather? 1988 is shaping up to be one of the driest years on record. Very little snow fell this past winter, and spring rains have turned out to be more myth than reality. "I've never seen the pine needles so dry at this time of year," commented one Memorial Day camper. Could park officials be worrying about the billions of cubic feet of accumulated litter sitting on the forest floor? We're holding our breath.

June 15
Yellowstone's forests are parched, parched, parched and begging for rain; yet, instead of rain, they are getting unusually dry, warm winds, with record low humidity readings. A reliable source said some of the live lodgepole pine trees in the forests have less moisture in them than dead wood dried in a kiln! Dry winds, extremely dry fuels, no rain — under these conditions, every bolt of lightning is like a match thrown on straw. What is Mother Nature doing?

June 26
It has happened. Two fires have flared up within Yellowstone's borders. One, which firefighters have dubbed the Shoshone Fire, began with a lightning bolt in the south end of the park three days ago, and the second, now called the Fan Fire, lit up the Gallatin Range just inside the northwest boundary yesterday.

July 13
As of this writing, seven fires are raging in or on the borders of Yellowstone National Park, yet this has not spoiled the plans of the tens of thousands of visitors streaming into the park. Officials continue to follow their relatively new, natural-burn policy; but as small fires balloon into major fires, critics are becoming incensed. In my humble opinion, as an intern, this might be a good time to put out some of those fires. And maybe we'd better get some rain dances going.

July 16
Looks like park officials read my articles, because yesterday they announced that all new fires in the forest, regardless of whether they were started by lightning or by humans, will be fought. In spite of their action, experts fear as many as 81,000 hectares of forest may go up in flames.

July 22
Firefighters announce the start of another fire. Dubbed the North Fork Fire, this one was apparently started when someone, gathering wood in a neighboring national forest, dropped a lit cigarette. Still no rain, and strong winds have been pushing the ever-growing infernos along at a brisk pace.

July 26
The Shoshone Fire is heading directly for Grant Village, and the village is being evacuated. Over 500 firefighters are working around the clock to keep the fire from destroying buildings, but they are not optimistic. Where is the rain??!!

August 22
Firefighters dubbed August 20th "Black Saturday." In a single day more than 65,000 hectares of forest succumbed to the hellish flames of a dozen advancing fires. Winds of more than 110 km. per hour threatened to sweep fires over the historic Norris Museum, but firefighters were able to save the building.

August 25
Fires hit Bozeman! Actually, smoke from the fires has reached us. Scientists report that smoke has risen as high as 16 km. into the atmosphere, and now it is coming down on our town, 72 km. north of the northern park boundary. The elderly and infirm are urged to stay inside because of the pollution in the air. What next?!

September 7
A back-fire, intentionally set by firefighters to protect the town of Cooke City, almost burns the town down when the winds suddenly shift. On another front, the historic wooden buildings of Old Faithful came perilously close to being destroyed; but, as of this writing, they are still standing.

September 10
Park officials finally admit defeat; and, for the first time since the fires started, they have closed the entire park to the public. It is a sad day.

September 11
Snow!!!!!!!!! Two inches of glorious wet snow have fallen over much of Yellowstone. Hallelujah!

October 11
Although a few fires are still burning, Yellowstone Park officials are assuring the public that the fire situation is now totally under control. At the same time, statistic-makers are summing up the disaster. With ten thousand firefighters and military units, dozens of helicopters and spotting planes, hundreds of fire engines, 1,600 km. of fire lines, millions of liters of water and retardants, the firefighting efforts in Yellowstone are the largest ever undertaken, anywhere. It is estimated that $120 million has been spent to battle these fires; the entire annual park budget pales in comparison - a mere $17.5 million. The results of these efforts are less impressive: the fires have burned more than 650,000 hectares in the region around Yellowstone, some 325,000 in the park alone; and, in the end, it was Mother Nature who put the fires out. Nearly every visitor complex in Yellowstone and every community just outside the park was threatened, but - and here's where the firefighters can take a bow - only four people were killed (three when a firefighting helicopter crashed), and no major structures were damaged or destroyed.

Footnote: This log is based upon fact. All characters names have been changed. Any similarities to persons past or present is coincidental. The actual source for this material is the book Yellowstone and the Fires of Change, written by George Wuerthner.

Review Questions

  1. Describe the conditions present in Yellowstone just prior to the 1988 fires.
  2. What actions were taken by park officials to protect people from the fire?
  3. What resources were used in attempts to suppress the 1988 fires?