Remembering The 1988 Yellowstone Fires Twenty years ago this summer, Yellowstone caught fire. The flames scorched about 1.2 million acres across the area, leaving the impression that the world's first national park had been destroyed.
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Remembering The 1988 Yellowstone Fires

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Remembering The 1988 Yellowstone Fires

Remembering The 1988 Yellowstone Fires

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This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Twenty years ago, in the summer of 1988, Yellowstone caught fire.

(Soundbite of blazing fire)

HANSEN: The fires began in June and continued to burn until November, when winter snows extinguished the last blazes. Over the course of that summer and fall, more than 25,000 firefighters were brought in from around the country. In the end, the flames scorched about 1.2 million acres across the greater Yellowstone area, leaving the impression that the nation and the world's first national park had been destroyed. Scott McMillion reported for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in Bozeman, Montana, for 20 years. One of his earliest assignments was covering the 1988 fires.

Mr. SCOTT MCMILLION (Reporter, Bozeman Daily Chronicle): Yellowstone is a beloved icon. It was a celebrity fire in a celebrity place, and there was an impression that it was being allowed to burn to the ground.

HANSEN: The heightened media presence and the televised coverage of the fires horrified many people who believed that Yellowstone would be ruined forever. NPR reporter Alex Chadwick was in the park at the time of the fires and he recorded this man's reaction.

Unidentified Man: This is - just as though whoever was in charge of the crown jewels of England decided to take a sledgehammer and smash them up, you know. This is a national treasure and they just let it burn up.

HANSEN: But the doom and gloom prophecies about the destruction of Yellowstone proved to be wrong. In this first part of our series on Yellowstone National Park, we'll be looking at the history of the park and its resilience. Lee Whittlesey is Yellowstone's official historian. He's a small, wiry man, sporting a red plaid lumberjack shirt and an impish grin. We met him at the Yellowstone National Park Heritage Research Center in Gardiner, Montana, just outside the north entrance to the park.

Mr. LEE WHITTLESEY (Official Historian, Yellowstone): When Yellowstone was established in 1872, there were no other national parks anywhere on earth, and Congress carved it out of territorial Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. So if you look at an 1872 map of the American West, you see the rectangle of Yellowstone National Park and nothing else for hundreds of miles. It's the oldest entity in this region.

HANSEN: Despite its remote location, the park quickly attracted a lot of attention. Even before it was officially established, it was called "Wonderland," from Lewis Carroll's book, "Alice in Wonderland." Again, Lee Whittlesey.

Mr. WHITTLESEY: By the late 1870s and early 1880s, everybody was referring to it as wonderland this and wonderland that, in the newspapers of this nation and the books and newspapers and magazines of Europe. And that was before the railroad even got here.

HANSEN: The first magazine article about Yellowstone appeared in 1871 and was titled, "The Wonders of the Yellowstone." It described the geysers, hot springs, mud pots and steam vents which were the original attractions in the park. These thermal features were unlike anything anyone had seen before and they heightened people's curiosity.

(Soundbite of people talking)

HANSEN: I'm standing in front of the Old Faithful geyser. This geothermal wonder is what attracted people to Yellowstone National Park and what makes it so unique.

(Soundbite of people talking)

HANSEN: That fascination with Yellowstone hasn't changed much in the 136 years since the park's founding. It has peaked tourist season, and hundreds of people line the boardwalk around Old Faithful, the park's most famous attraction. Those who have visited the park, and even those who have only seen pictures, consider it to be a national treasure and in need of protection, both from humans and from more natural threats like fire.

Yellowstone has survived many fires. Up until 1988, the park averaged at least one a year. Often, these were smaller fires that would go out on their own. Don Despain served as a research biologist with the National Park Service and helped to generate the fire management plans used by Yellowstone. In 1972, the park began trying something new.

Dr. DON DESPAIN (Research Biologist, National Park Service): We'd had a policy in place since 1972 that we would let certain fires burn, as they would without any human interference, as much as we could.

HANSEN: The fires allowed to burn were considered natural fires, those fires caused by lightning. Over the next 15 years, it proved to be a successful strategy and the park service saw no reason to change it. But the summer of 1988 proved to be different from previous fire seasons. By June, Yellowstone was already in a severe drought, despite higher than average rainfall in the spring. By mid-July, fires caused by lightning and human carelessness had consumed close to 17,000 acres in the park. No rain, low humidity, increasing winds and a lot of very dry pine needles and fallen branches all constituted what then-Park Superintendent Bob Barbee called "attention getters." The let-it-burn policy was put on hold.

Mr. BOB BARBEE (Park Superintendent, Yellowstone National Park): We went into a suppression mode of putting things out as much as we could, and we still didn't anticipated anything like what was to come.

HANSEN: By the end of July, the larger fires had become nearly uncontrollable. Public sentiment was that the Park Service had failed to do its job. But according to Bob Barbee, the situation was unavoidable.

Mr. BARBEE: No matter what we would have done, the conditions were such that there were going to be great fires in Yellowstone under any circumstances. And they were started by lightning, they were started by outfitters, they were started by woodcutters. We were a perfect setup to burn.

HANSEN: The worst day of the 1988 fires came on August 20th, known as Black Saturday. High winds propelled the extremely hot and fast-burning fires across more than 150,000 acres, practically doubling the amount of land that had already burned. By this point, the national media had turned their full attention to the events in Yellowstone. And according to Lee Whittlesey, the park's historian, they may have overreacted.

Mr. WHITTLESEY: Our heritage tonight is burning, I seem to recall one newscaster dramatically intoning. And that was a little much.

HANSEN: Local residents were worried. The fires were only a few miles away and they seemed dangerously out of control. At town hall meetings in west Yellowstone, Montana at the west entrance of the park, the park service and especially Bob Barbee bore the brunt of people's frustration.

Mr. BARBEE: You know, folks kept saying, well, why don't you people just put those fires out? It just doesn't work that way. And the strategy is not putting the fires out but managing them, herding them. You don't go in and put out these huge fires.

HANSEN: What many in the media and in the general public failed to understand at the time was that fire, even fire of this magnitude, was necessary to maintain the overall health of Yellowstone's ecosystem. Lodgepole pines, tall, skinny trees with branches near the top or crown, dominate most of Yellowstone's landscape. Some of their pinecones are sealed with a waxy resin and only open once temperatures reach above 113 degrees Fahrenheit. In other words, the trees require fire in order to reproduce. Again, Bob Barbee.

Mr. BARBEE: Fire is as important to the great lodgepole ecosystems of the Northern Rockies as sunshine and rain. And so the forest recycled itself quickly. Now if you go to Yellowstone you'll see a carpet of green. The forest is fully recovering. And we don't characterize the fire as causing damage to the park.

HANSEN: And he's right. The 1988 fires changed Yellowstone but didn't destroy it. Seedlings began to appear as early as 1989, and now there are healthy and green 20-year-old trees covering the park. The fires also provided a sort of living laboratory for scientists to learn about how ecosystems recover. More than 250 fire-related research projects have been conducted in the past two decades examining the fire's impact on wildlife, water and vegetation.

Over the next few weeks, as our series on Yellowstone continues, we'll learn about what ecologists discovered from the 1988 fires. We'll also talk to people about their personal experiences and look ahead to the future of the park and its surrounding ecosystem. Our series is produced by Laura Krantz.

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