All About the Yellowstone Fires

Yellowstone Fire approaching Old Faithful Lodge

Compiled, plegerized and pseudo authorized by Daryl L. Hunter

lodgepole pine seedling
A lodgepole seedling has the opportunity to sprout because the seeds were released by fire

Fire is good; Yellowstone has long been shaped by fire and not just the cool, creeping ground fires often described as "good" for grass production. The natural history of fire in the park includes large-scale conflagrations sweeping across the park's vast volcanic plateaus, hot, wind-driven fires torching up the trunks to the crowns of the pine and fir trees at several hundred-year intervals. It is supposed to be this way. During the first half of the twentieth century, most people, forest managers included considered forest fires to be destructive and without positive value. For this reason, Yellowstone and throughout the National Park Service had a policy of putting out all fires on national interest wildlands lands. In the second half of the century, forest managers of national parks and forests began to understand the importance of periodic wildland fires. With the help of Smokey the Bear most of America was in consensus that all wildfires were bad. Most Americans steeped in Smokey the Bear's "Only you can prevent forest fires!" mantra, the very thought that forest fires might have a positive side seemed preposterous. We all learned this as children and it is damned hard to change, as our indoctrination to this policy was total. Unfortunately man’s past practice of total forest fire suppression has changed the forest into a much shadier forest floor habitat causing heavy fuel accumulation on the forest floor resulting in the very hot forest fires we see lately that result in maximum loss of the forest. The Natural Burn Policy The National Park Service interprets its mission as letting natural processes play out unimpeded by man. Biologists and park managers have defined its policy: "We allow a park that has documented the role of fire as a natural part of the ecosystem, and that has an approved fire-management plan specifying the prescriptions under which natural fires may burn, to manage each fire on an individual basis."

The "prescribed-fire" approach, which allows fires to burn under certain previously defined conditions called "prescriptions"), has evolved as federal policy since the 1970s, and it was just a matter of time before a prescribed fire consumed some wildland dear to the public's heart. And in a way, it's appropriate, because Yellowstone has both the largest area and one of the most ecologically progressive fire-management plans of any parcel of public land in the contiguous United States.

What has become known as the “D” words: death, defoliation, demise, desolation, destruction, and devastation, are often used to character assassinate the fires that actually are an integral part of the life cycle of the park and the terms and references make biologists with knowledge of biological fire science shutter because of the ignorance peddling.

Yellowstone’s fire of 1988

Firefighters Yellowstone National Park
Firefighters Yellowstone National Park

I was fortunate enough to be living next door to Steve Kilpatrick Range Biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish in 1987 through 1988, I had already learned some fire ecology but Steve was really good about answering my incessant questions especially during the Yellowstone fires. The 1988 fire season in Yellowstone began when a single lightning strike set a small group of pines ablaze on June 22. Officials weren't initially worried. A Yellowstone Public Affairs Specialist said “We knew it had started naturally, and we assumed the summer rains would keep it in check.” They didn't know that the summer was going to be one of the driest and windiest since the park was established in 1872. Damn them for the gross paucity of clairvoyance. While giving a tour of Yellowstone I saw this first fire, it was very small and new and one of my guests suggested we call the rangers and report it, I then explained my nutshell fire ecology lesson about fires place in nature and explained the future benefits of infant conflagration they were then gazing upon. When fires began to burn out of control in late June and early July of 1988, critics who were ignorant of the importance of fire began to refer to the "natural burn" policy as the "let it burn" policy. The fires in Yellowstone were allowed to burn naturally until July 22, 1988 when a political decision was made to appease the public, Smokey the Bear, the press and the politicians, that all fires would be actively fought. At this time, however, not even 50,000 acres had been burned. Media coverage coming out of Yellowstone that summer was long on sensationalism, short on science. Scenes of 30,000-foot smoke columns, roaring walls of flame and blackened moonscapes blanketed the front pages of newspapers and flashed across TV screens daily. Much of the time they were accompanied by adjectives like disaster, decimated, never going to recover.

Crown Fire, Yellowstone National Park
Crown fire burning quickly up a hill

As reporters regurgitated inflammatory hyperbole many politicians, news reporters, and average citizens began to express intense anger because of the "natural burn" policy; it was predictable behavior considering our collective, Smokey the Bear, indoctrination. Two Wyoming senators demanded that National Park Superintendent William Mott be fired. Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel told Good Morning America on July 23, 1988, "We're not going to let Yellowstone be damaged by this", Donald Hodel was right. The news media was, as usual, the worst and most ignorant critic, however, and frequently used the phrase "let it burn." The Billings Gazette questioned why Yellowstone Park Superintendent Robert Barbee "rode a dead policy into hell." The Richmond News Leader wrote, "If you want to see the world's largest charcoal grill, just visit Yellowstone. Be sure to say, 'Thank you, environmentalists!'" The Wall Street Journal wrote, "Yellowstone Burns as Park Managers Play Politics. All were speaking from the heart but from a foundation of ignorance.

The powerful fires jumped the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, many roads and rivers hundreds of feet wide. The fires exponentially grew wildly dangerous and unpredictable with constant spot fires driven by strong winds. Hot embers often started spot fires a mile ahead of the main blaze. Firefighters knew that people and equipment could easily become trapped between the main fire and outlying spot fires, so they concentrated on controlling the flanks of the fires and protecting lives and property in their path. The Montana towns of Cooke City, Silver Gate, and West Yellowstone were threatened, as were most of the developed areas within Yellowstone National Park. 
Someone changed the Cooke City limit sign to read Cooked City.

Canopy Fire
Canopy Fire and firefighters

Setting backfires in a fires path was a fire tool often employed. A backfire or back burn is a fire that is set deliberately in the path of an oncoming fire. As the backfire burns, it consumes fuel, thereby depriving the primary fire of tinder when it reaches the site of the backfire. When the technique is executed correctly, it stops a wildfire in its tracks, or confines it, making it much easier to control. Many firefighters are trained in the art of calculating and placing a backfire when they are taught techniques for fighting wildfires. 
A popular joke at the time was: How does Bruce Babbit (Secretary of the interior) stop a kitchen fire? He starts a backfire in the living room.

On a windy day in July a woodcutter discarded a smoking cigarette in the Targhee National Forest, less than 200 yards west of the park. This was the start of the North Fork Fire, which entered Yellowstone within hours. It burned over 400,000 acres in the park and threatened West Yellowstone, Madison, Norris, Canyon, Tower, Mammoth, and Old Faithful. On September 7th, a firestorm raged toward the Old Faithful area, nearly incinerating the entire site. Instead, at the last minute, the wind shifted slightly, blowing the body of the fire just south of Old Faithful’s main developed area.

Crown fire, West Thumb, Yellowstone National Park
Crown Fire by West Thumb in Yellowstone

A fire that started by Flagg Ranch just outside the south entrance started by a power line that was blown down by 60 mile per hour winds, in this single day this fire burned ten thousand acres.

Mother Nature was now clearly at the in charge. Day after day, high winds propelled flames up to 200 feet high through the park’s lodgepole pine forests, tossing embers a mile or more ahead of the main fire and over natural and man-made firebreaks, sparking new blazes. Big fires joined together into conflagrations. Firefighters were forced to go from attempting to corral the flames behind fire lines to solely protecting human lives and property.

Yellowstone’s fires raged until September 11, when the first significant moisture since Memorial Day fell in the park. Fall rains, snow and cooler temperatures finally snuffed out the flames, despite the efforts of thousands of firefighters, and it took nature, which came to the rescue with snow to finally douse the flames.

The Yellowstone Fires consumed 1.4 million acres of Greater Yellowstone (a loosely defined area of about 10 million acres), including 739,000 of the park's 2.2 million acres. Today you still can find some scars created by the 1988 fires. Some areas are recovering more quickly than others.

The ideal wildfire burns a mosaic pattern, many of Yellowstone’s fires did just that, others burned hotter and others only marginally affected the forest. Inside fire perimeters, large expanses of forest were completely untouched. There were three major types of burning. From an aesthetic viewpoint, the most destructive fires were the canopy crown fires that in many places obliterated entire forests. Crown fires accounted for about 41 percent of all the area that burned. Mixed fires burned both the canopy and vegetation on the ground, or burned one or the other as they spread through the forest. Ground fires spread slowly along the ground, consuming smaller plants and dead plant material; some ground fires burned for longer duration and intensity, contributing to the loss of many trees whose canopies were never directly burned.

Although the tourist season of 1988 was cut prematurely short by the fires and associated firefighting activity, the feared abandonment of Yellowstone’s visitors failed to materialize in 1989, quite the opposite happened, visitation went ups as a seed of curiosity was also sprouted during and after the fire.

In the fires aftermath the U.S. Congress funded projects to restore damaged facilities and to study the long-term ecological, social, and economic effects of the Yellowstone fires.

Yellowstone’s Wildlife and Fire

elk herd grazing in burned yellowstone forest
Elk herd grazes fresh burn in Yellowstone

Many people also worried that the fires would devastate Yellowstone's wildlife. Some of the smaller animals, like squirrels, were caught and burned, but their numbers recovered quickly in the years following the fires. About one percent of the Yellowstone's 30,000-40,000 large mammals died in the fires. Most of these animals were elk. During the fires ravens got so heavy from eating squirrels and other fire killed rodents they could hardly fly.

Yellowstone’s elk, moose, pronghorn, mule deer and Bison seemed to take the fires pretty much in stride. While several hundred large animals died in the flames, thousands of photos were taken of herds of elk grazing in meadows while flames swirled just down wind from them.

Although most of the large grazing animals were able to escape the actual fires, many were soon faced with a different set of problems. In certain parts of Yellowstone, meadows burned right before the onset of winter and there was no time for new forage to grow, consequent the winter of 1988/1989 was very hard on these animals. Most of the deer and pronghorn migrated out of the park to find available food. But what is bad for some animals is good for others, Coyotes, fox, and weasels benefitted from the loss of cover available to their prey and hunting for them was easier.

Rocky Mountain elk prefer open-area habitats, as its year-round food is grass and sedges. Migrating from summer alpine meadows to the plains' edge in winter, the elk requires patches of protective forest as it moves about from protective cover to food sources out in the open.

bull elk grazing burn in yellowstone
Bull elk grazing burn in Yellowstone

The first few years following the fires were provided lush grazing because minerals in the ash enriched the soil and more sunlight reached the forest floor for the first time with abundance in decades. Moss, as thick as an inch or more, grew in burned soils. It helped retain moisture and slow erosion, which in turn encouraged new plants to grow, nurse shrubs flourished. An incredible display of wildflowers graced Yellowstone National Park in the spring of 1989.

An example I use to explain to my tour guests to illustrate a benefit of fire is I ask them; do you have trouble growing a healthy lawn under your big shade trees? The answer is always yes. As I proceed through the park doing the tour I point out how little grass there is under the forest canopy and how much feed there is in the meadows and sagebrush areas. In the years following the fire there was a population boom of ungulate species that graze the parks forests and grasslands.

Nurse shrubs provide shade and a zone of higher humidity for the young conifers. At this stage, the ungulates population increases exponentially due to the increased shrub population. Ungulates being browsers find shrub tips a valuable food source. Ungulates migrate up through the different forest zones following the early shrub tip growth. At the shrub successional stage, large numbers of ground squirrels, chipmunks, and other rodents occur. These rodents are preyed upon by those higher in the food chain, owls, fox and coyote and such, and predator numbers increase with the increased rodent supply as a food source. Some animals can live and breed in young forests and others in mature woods and forests. There usually is an overlap of each species. For example, rabbits can live in fields, shrubby areas, or young woodlots with dense undergrowth. However, when larger trees shade out lower growing brush, rabbits will move out to find safer cover and those that eat them follow.

On the flip side, predator populations fall in the climax forest (mature forest), because rodent numbers are small and the ungulates have moved to where the sun shines hence the food grows. Wildlife types change as habitat changes. Open areas with grass attract large grazing animals such as bison, elk, deer, and pronghorn antelope, as well as smaller prairie animals including ground squirrels and pocket gophers. However, as brush and trees begin to grow, the type of wildlife changes. The Lewis & Clark expedition nearly died in the climax forest crossing western Montana and Idaho, as there are birds, but no game.

The Climax Forest

Definition: A forest dominated by trees representing the culminating stage of natural succession for that specific locality and environment. A climax forest will remain essentially unchanged in terms of species composition for as long as the site remains undisturbed

To explain The Climax Forest in this already long essay is a step to far for many so, if interested in a better understanding of Yellowstone and fire visit The Climax Forest Page

Fire Ecology

Lodgepole Pine Cone, open
Lodgepole pine cone that has opened with the help of the Yellowstone Fires

Fire ecologists use estimates of fire occurrence intervals to better understand the role of fire in different forest types. Fire occurrence intervals represent the average frequency of fire for an area or plant community type on the landscape. Natural, historical fire occurrence intervals in Yellowstone range from 20-25 years for shrub and grasslands and 300 years or more for lodgepole pine forests and subalpine whitebark pine stands and this is the way it is meant to happen. Such wildfires occurred across much of the ecosystem in the 1700s. But that, of course, was prior to the arrival of European explorers who thought it good too put out all fires.

Lightning ignites dozens of forest fires in a single summer, although most of them go out for lack of combustible fuel before spreading to more than a fraction of an acre. Without frequent small and occasional large fires to create a mosaic of plant communities in different stages, biodiversity declines and leaf litter and deadfall accumulate much faster than they can return nutrients to the soil through decay. The National Park Service therefore allows lightning-ignited fires to carry out their ecological role in Yellowstone to the extent that this is possible without risking human life or property. Prescribed burning means to deliberately set fire in certain areas using very specific guidelines on such factors as location, weather, wind speed, and moisture levels however in Yellowstone prescription fires are not set, as they are in our national forest by range biologists however the natural occurring fires are evaluated to see if the range would be improved by letting it burn. These efforts will hopefully help prevent or control catastrophic fires in the future. In the 1970s, Yellowstone and other parks established fire management plans that allowed nature to take its course. Lightning-caused wildland fires were allowed to burn because of their positive natural influence on wildland ecosystems.

Benefits of Fire

Mosaic burn, yellowstone
Mosaic burns burn here and there leaving swaths of both burned and unburned forest.

It's easy to understand why the Yellowstone fires captured a lot of media attention: They were some of the largest fires that anyone had seen in a place everyone loves and has a vested interest in. Public understanding of the natural role of fire was low; and many people believed as they were told that they were witnessing Yellowstone’s destruction live on TV.

The reality of course was beyond the grasp of reporters, lay people, and politicians, the fires rejuvenated Yellowstone’s wildlife and ecosystems, and that is a beautiful thing even though we can't recognize that with our eyes, we must engage our heads to see it. For example, new lodgepole pine tree seedlings sprang up after fire-cleared undergrowth and stimulated the opening of pinecones. Fires can help rejuvenate the forests and grasslands that store carbon. So any carbon released by the fires themselves is balanced out by the subsequent proliferation of plant life.

Yellowstone’s fires provide a revealing glimpse of the intricate miracle of post-fire recovery, since sufficient time has elapsed to gather and analyze meaningful data about the environmental impact of the conflagrations that consumed such a large swath of territory.

bunsen peak mosaic burn, yellowstone park
Bunsen Peak mosaic burn in northwest Yellowstone. This illustrates how fires burn here and burn there opening up the forest canopy so the sun may shine in to grow grasses and forbs for the wildlife.

The Mosaic Burn - Fire managers prefer a fire to burn a mosaic pattern. Within the boundary of fire prone vegetation, there will usually be a mosaic of vegetation patches, with different ages since the last visit by fire. Ecologists call this “serial diversity”, and most would agree that it is better to have a fine-grained (many small patches) than a coarse grained (a few large patches) mosaic. A fine grained mosaic offers, within a given area, more variety of shelter and feeding opportunities, and more short-distance changes in microclimatic effects, such as shade and sunlight, shelter from wind, and soil moisture

As I drive through Yellowstone cognizant as I am of the diversity a mosaic burn brings to the ecosystem I marvel at how fire often provides just that, diversity, contradicting our perception of fire. As I observe burned areas that burned hot and I see islands of undisturbed trees and sometimes a single tree standing alone and it amazes me. Other places I see where fire burned through the forest floor leaving the canopy undisturbed. The north face of Bunsen Peak provides a great example of where fire burnt quickly up a steep mountain but it was fingers of wildfire that burnt up the mountain leaving long fingers of undisturbed standing timber. The Bunsen Peak example illustrates how fire opens up the forest to increase grazing while preserving cover for the animals providing them a place to hide.

Understroy fire, Yellowstone, 1988
Understory fires without wind burn slowly along the forest floor, not destroying the trees, burning the decaying forest litter that builds up on the forest floor over decades. forest litter accumulates to a foot or more in depth, composed of needles and small twigs.

The lodgepole pine is Yellowstone's dominant tree; its seeds reside in resin-encased cones. Intense fires cause the resin to melt releasing decades worth of seeds to the forest floor. Because the soil is rich with nutrients deposited by the fire, pine saplings flourish, as they would not have before the fire. Lodgepole pine is not only a fire-successional species but part of a normal climatically caused natural succession of plant originating with vegetation dominated by big sagebrush. In the several years following 1988, ample precipitation combined with the short-term effects of ash and nutrient influx causing lodgepole forest seed densities from 50,000 to 1 million seeds per acre, beginning a new cycle of forest growth under the blackened canopy above. And since the seeds are blackened by fire, when they fall onto the charcoal and ash resulting from the fires they are camouflaged from hungry birds. This is clearly evident to the Yellowstone visitor today as it is easy to see the giant swaths of new forest of trees that blanket what was once charred forest. Even the huge crown fires that leap high into a forest's canopy contribute to the welfare of some plants, since crown fires enable more sunlight on the forest floor. Plants that had lain quietly in seedbeds beneath the soil sprout after bums, responding to newfound light or sensing a change in environment.

Following the Yellowstone fires, grasses and forbs, which burn on top but regenerate from roots protected in the below ground, surged back, fertilized by nitrogen and phosphorus loosed from dead plants and ash. Everywhere after fires brilliant red fireweed plants proliferated.

Although fires can be destructive of human lives, property, and livelihoods, such negative terms are considered inappropriate when referring to fire as an ecological process that is neither good nor bad, but just part of the ecological system. When it comes to sustaining or renewing Earth's resources, man's relatively puny efforts, via such collectivist ploys as Earth Summits and special-interest environmental crusades, pale in comparison to the wondrous checks and balances built into God's creation.

What scientists have learned

firefighter keeping water on Old faithful Lodge in an effort to keep it from burning
Firefighter keeping water on Old faithful Lodge in an effort to keep it from burning

Temperatures high enough to kill deep roots occurred in less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the park, where conditions allowed the fire to burn slowly for several hours. If water was available, new plant growth began within a few days. Plant growth was unusually lush in the first years after the fires because ash was rich in minerals and more sunlight reached the forest floors. About one-third of the aspen in the northern range burned in the 1988 fires, however the aspen stands were not destroyed. Fire stimulated the growth of suckers from the aspen’s underground root system and left behind bare mineral soil that provided good conditions for aspen seedlings. Aspen seedlings also appeared throughout the park’s burned areas, becoming established where aspen had not been before. Burned pine bark provided nutritious food for elk in the first years following the fires and was easy for them to access in the dead of winter. Many of the forests that burned in 1988 were mature lodgepole stands, and this species is recolonizing most burned areas. Other species such as Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, and Douglas fir have also emerged. About 25 percent of the park’s whitebark pine forest burned in 1988. Scientists set up 275 study plots to study what would happen after the fires, by 1995, whitebark pine seedlings had emerged in all the plots. In a study from 1989 through 1992 discovered bears were found grazing more frequently at burned than unburned sites, especially on clover and fireweed. The fires had no discernible impact the grizzly bear population in greater Yellowstone. Fires burned through areas surrounding Yellowstone and Lewis lakes, but scientists found no significant changes in fish growth in streams and rivers flowing into or out of these lakes. The moose population has dropped in Yellowstone, in part because of the loss of old growth forest during the 1988 fires

In Summary

Grassy Burn
Lush grasses and herbs grow in forest fire burns where previously it was too shady to produce significant feed for wildlife.

When I drive through the park today I marvel at the wonders of nature. In most places that burned in 1988 are half grown lodgepole forests; some steep slopes that burned much hotter are recovering much slower. The new stands of lodgepole pine already block the sun from the ground so this new forest is already blocking the growth of grasses and forbs for the animals and I am thankful for the fires that have happened since 1988 so the animals will continue to have the groceries they need to survive.

Often my guests ask; “Shouldn’t we harvest the standing dead trees before they go to waste?” I reply; “No because Yellowstone is a ecologic laboratory, we need it to act as if we are not here. These burnt trees need to fall to the ground and rot into the soil to enrich it. I explain; in a thousand years after we have been logging our national forests and they quit producing trees in a productive way we will be able to analyze the soil in Yellowstone, other national parks and designated wilderness areas, which has been allowed to be managed by nature instead of man, so we will have access to what the makeup is of a natural forest floor.” As a proponent of responsibility logging and fiscal conservative it took some soul searching to come up with this conclusion.

I point out to my guests that Smokey the Bear colored our thinking about fire and burnt stands of lodgepole skeletons are ugly to us because we were taught that fire was bad. However during the course of my personal evolution of perception I have come to see the beauty of a burnt forest and I explain that burnt forests aren’t as ugly when you can factor the benefits of fire to the ecosystem, especially for the animals.

When you witness the birth of a child there is nothing physically beautiful about it until you factor the beauty of the miracle of life.

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