Yellowstone After the Fires

Should we lament the devastation of a great national park or raise a cheer for its obvious recovery?

Bull elk in Yellowstone

Despite the fires’ extent, native elk and other wildlife largely survived.

Two decades ago, I thought Yellowstone National Park was toast. My season of fire started with the sight of a distant orange glow over the park’s northwest boundary. It was July 3, 1988, and the night sky was crackling with lightning. Riding shotgun in a friend’s pickup, I thought briefly that the pyrotechnics had started a day early. We reported the fire to a ranger at the park entrance, but of course he already knew. Within weeks, much of the world would know that Yellowstone was burning. As a park employee—it’s no longer on my resume, but I sorted towels and sheets at the lodge in Canyon—I had a front-row seat at the inferno that unfolded during the driest summer in the region’s recorded history. White ash fell like snow flurries on 95-degree days, and smoke blocked out the sun. On an unusually clear night in late August, I climbed onto the roof of the lodge with a group of other employees to watch the flames several miles away. A few disgruntled workers cheered, but mostly we stared in silence. The next day the flames swung toward us, forcing an emergency evacuation. We piled into school buses and whizzed past miles of smoldering tree trunks and smoking embers. A few trees along the road were still burning; we were as close to the action as we could get without donning firefighting gear. During a lull, we were sent back to close up the lodge. The air was hot and thick, and we all knew that if the winds took a turn we might have to run for the buses. Twenty-year-olds are prone to hyperbole, so I can be forgiven for feeling I was counting washcloths in Armageddon.

By official record, 248 separate fires burned in Greater Yellowstone that summer. Lightning strikes ignited most, but tossed cigarettes and other human blunders abetted the destruction. Small fires quickly merged to form massive, fast-moving blazes that could overtake two miles of new ground in an hour. Fanned by 60-milean-hour winds and fueled by trees as dry as sawdust, the flames showed an appetite of a magnitude few had ever seen. On August 20—a day remembered as Black Saturday—the fires scorched 150,000 acres.

In the end, 1.4 million acres burned in the Yellowstone ecosystem, almost 800,000 in the park itself—an event that attracted reporters and TV crews from around the world. After watching 200-foot flames on the nightly news, many people feared that our first (and, in my view, best) national park was lost.

Fire sights around Yellowstone

This year, on the 20th anniversary of the 1988 fires, rangers at park entrances are offering visitors free color handouts that explain the blazes and their aftermath. For more intimate views, stop off at any of the following exhibits. For information, visit www.nps.gov/yell.

  • Grant Village Visitor Center A free interpretative display on Yellowstone Lake’s south shore features during and after photos and a short movie.
  • Trail six miles from Mammoth on road to Tower Junction For a close look at the burn, stroll this easy loop past stands of blackened lodgepole pines mingled with luxuriant new growth. Displays discuss fire ecology, geology, and wildlife. The trail (less than a mile long) is wheelchair accessible.
  • Turnout midway between Canyon and Norris A 1984 storm left a carpet of dead trees here, perfect tinder for a forest fire. Four years later, the site burned so completely that one journalist described it as "nuked." Today, thriving pines show the land’s ability to recover from such devastation.

But today Yellowstone doesn’t feel like a disaster site. On the hills around Old Faithful Inn—where the flames came close enough to crack windshields and melt tires of cars in the parking lot—bright green young pines envelop thousands of dead, gray trunks. Near Tower Falls, moose step through an obstacle course of charred deadfall to browse on new shoots. Trumpeter swans and rainbow trout in the Madison River drift past heatshattered boulders and stands of ghostly "totem trees"—trunks of gnarled charcoal that in some places still look warm to the touch.

The totem trees make compelling photographs, but new saplings are stealing the show everywhere. Near the west entrance, pines six to 12 feet tall crowd the Madison Valley, an area that burned especially hot. Stretching for miles, the young stand looks like a disorganized Christmas tree farm, but people had nothing to do with it. Every tree marks a spot where a pine seed found a suitable piece of ground, a place with more nutrients and more direct light than before.

Soon after the fires, Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming toured the park and predicted that it wouldn’t fully recover for a thousand years; experts have always been a little more optimistic. Conflagrations are nothing new to Yellowstone, says Roy Renkin, a vegetation management specialist with the National Park Service. The park still bears scars from a 1988-style inferno that swept through in the early 1700s, followed by another in the 1850s. "These types of fires are infrequent in our life spans, but not in the park’s," he says. "If I were a betting man, I’d say we’re likely to have something of similar proportions again this century."

After every burn, plants and animals quickly rally. Even before the ashes cool, the elements of regrowth are in place. According to park scientists, less than 1 percent of the soil got hot enough in 1988 to kill belowground roots and seeds.

Yet contrary to common wisdom, forest fires don’t generally create meadows or other permanent open spaces, Renkin says. Instead, they turn stands of mature trees into nurseries for new ones, a zero-sum transition that doesn’t really change the balance of the ecosystem Lodgepole pines dominated Yellowstone before the fires, and they have been especially eager to reclaim burned ground. Most—but not all—lodgepoles have cones sealed tight with sticky resins. They can’t even start releasing seeds until heat softens the cones. Postfire surveys found up to a million lodgepole seeds per acre.

What’s more, the flames can be capricious. Along the backcountry trail to Grebe Lake, in the park’s center, healthy 60-foot pines tower over scorched ones just a few feet away. After the fires, experts pointed to the mosaic pattern of the burns—a common sight—as a sure sign that all was not lost. Another positive sign: relatively few animal deaths. Workers found 345 elk that hadn’t been able to escape, a significant loss to be sure, but hardly a crisis for a population of more than 40,000. Some moose, deer, black bears, and bison also succumbed. A radio-collared grizzly that disappeared may not have come to a good end, but the surviving bears (and coyotes and ravens) enjoyed a long feast of charbroiled game.

Of course, animals felt the fires’ impact long after the flames died. Elk lost much of their winter forage, leaving them vulnerable in an especially harsh season of cold and snow. (I remember February temperatures of more than 40 below zero in nearby Bozeman, Mont.) More elk than usual died that winter, another boon to grizzlies and other scavengers. But as Renkin explains, the grazers that made it to spring enjoyed a bounty of new growth. In the long run, he says, the fires had little impact on the numbers or health of any animal species in the park.

In some ways, humans took it harder. And it wasn’t just panicky employees. Many locals angrily blamed the destruction on the National Park Service’s socalled natural burn policy, an official decision not to interfere with park fires caused by lightning. Despite past evidence, experts had predicted that any Yellowstone fire would run out of fuel or be doused by rain before it could do much damage. They hadn’t counted on the extreme dryness and high winds of 1988. "In that fire, the National Park Service found its image singed," noted a 2005 report. "The mission . . . was to protect nature; the ‘devastation’ that the public saw on television seemed to belie their trust."

As criticism flared with the fires, the park service dropped its burn policy in late July, weeks into the conflagration. The 13,000 firefighters and military troops that descended on the park for the largest firefighting effort in U.S. history had their victories. Most notably they saved Old Faithful Inn, erected in 1904, and other historic buildings.

But the smoke jumpers, air tankers, and bulldozers were largely outmatched. The fires had leaped the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone; they weren’t likely to be stopped by a slender fire line. The flames didn’t really die down until a blanket of snow fell in mid-September. Even then, hot spots smoldered for months.

"For people who remember the park the way it was, it’s a loss," says Ken Czoer of Tampa, Fla., who has visited both before and after the fires. "They’ll never see it that way again." But Erica Mason, a first-time visitor from Boston, has a different sense. "The new growth is great to see," she says. "It’s important to view nature in different stages."

The summer after the fires I came back for another tour of linen duty. On days off I took my usual hikes, often walking amid trees scorched from roots to crown. The blackened woods were oppressively quiet—no chattering squirrels or squawking ravens, not even buzzing flies—but I could already see the earliest fireweed and other leafy pioneers. I also hiked in places that were as green and lively as ever. I swam in the Firehole River, took a full-moon walk through the Norris Geyser Basin, and saw elk and bison to the point of tedium. Yellowstone wasn’t toast after all.

Photography by Jeff Vanuga

This article was first published in May 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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