The 20th August 1988 was most significant single day of fire growth to occur during the 1988 Yellowstone fires. These were the most significant fires to ever occur in a national park, and an event that would in many ways transform fire management throughout the country.
The 1988 fire season at Yellowstone started out to be fairly typical for that period of time. Over the previous 16 years, Yellowstone had allowed 235 fires to burn under its natural fire policy, and only 15 of these fires were larger than 100 acres. All were extinguished naturally. The summers of 1982 through 1987 were wetter than average, which may have contributed to the relatively low fire activity in those years.
No one anticipated that 1988 would be radically different. In April and May, Yellowstone received higher-than-normal rainfall. But by June, the greater Yellowstone area was experiencing a severe drought. Forest fuels grew progressively drier, and the early summer thunderstorms produced lightning without rain. The fire season began, but still without hint of the record season to come. Eight of 20 early-season fires went out by themselves, two were human-caused and suppressed, and the rest were being monitored in accordance with the existing fire management plan.
The summer of 1988 turned out to be the driest in the park’s recorded history. By July 15th, only 18,307 acres had burned in the entire greater Yellowstone area [Fire growth maps, Yellowstone National Park, 1988; Rothermel et al.]. Still, due to continued dry conditions, on July 21st the decision was made to suppress all fires. But within a week, fires within the park alone encompassed nearly 99,000 acres, and by the end of the month, dry fuels and high winds combined to make the larger fires nearly uncontrollable.
National news reporters poured into Yellowstone National Park, as did firefighters from around the country, bolstered by military recruits. On the most significant single day, Saturday, August 20th, to be known thereafter as “Black Saturday,” tremendous winds pushed fire across more than 150,000 acres. Throughout August and early September, some park roads and facilities were closed to the public, and residents of nearby towns outside the park feared for their property and their lives. Yellowstone’s fire management policy was the topic of heated debate, from the restaurants of park border towns to the halls of Congress.
By September 11th, the first snows of autumn had dampened the fires, as the nation’s largest firefighting effort could not. The imminent danger to life and property was over, and firefighters were gradually sent home, although the last of the smoldering flames were not extinguished until November. Staff in Yellowstone National Park went to work surveying the impacts of the fires on wildlife, plants, historic structures, trails, and more and answering the demands for information, explanation, and a new fire management policy.
A total of 248 fires started in the greater Yellowstone area in 1988; 45 of those were in Yellowstone National Park. Despite widespread misconceptions that all fires were initially allowed to burn, only 25 of the total were; of these, 22 began inside the park. In the end, seven major fires were responsible for more than 95 percent of the burned acreage. Five of those fires were ignited outside the park, and three of them were human-caused fires that firefighters attempted to control from the beginning.
More than 25,000 firefighters—as many as 9,000 at one time—attacked Yellowstone fires in 1988, at a total cost of about $120 million. Thankfully, the fires killed no park visitors and no nearby residents. Outside the park, two firefighters were killed, one by a falling tree and one while piloting a plane transporting other personnel.
About 1.2 million acres were scorched across the ecosystem; within the park, 793,000 of 2,221,800 acres, or about 36 percent, were burned. Sixty-seven structures were destroyed, including 18 cabins used by employees and guests and one backcountry patrol cabin in Yellowstone. Estimated property damage totaled more than $3 million. About 665 miles of hand-cut fireline and 137 miles of bulldozer lines, including 32 miles in the park, needed some rehabilitation, along with the remnants of fire camps and helicopter landing spots. Some animals died, but not a statistically significant number. Surveys revealed that less than 1 percent of soils were heated enough to burn belowground plant seeds and roots.
The effects on many plants and animals are still being studied, although in the short-term, most wildlife populations showed no effect or rebounded quickly from the fiery summer. In the several years following 1988, ample precipitation combined with the short-term effects of ash and nutrient influx to make for spectacular displays of wildflowers in burned areas. And, where serotinous lodgepole pines were burned, seed densities ranged from 50,000 to 1 million per acre, beginning a new cycle of forest growth under the blackened canopy above.
Across the nation, national parks and forests suspended and updated their fire management plans, assisted by the ecological assessment of a panel of independent scientists and by revised national fire management policies.
A massive effort was funded by the U.S. Congress to restore damaged facilities and to study the long-term ecological, social, and economic effects of the Yellowstone fires. Although the tourist season was cut prematurely short by the fires and associated firefighting activity, the feared abandonment of regional visitors failed to materialize in 1989.
Twenty-five years later, technology has changed, but we still see fires burning in the Yellowstone landscape. In recognition of this major event and the impacts it had on fire management in the National Park Service and its sister agencies, the NPS Division of Fire and Aviation Management has created a fire subject site with some relevant documents, including:
- retrospective articles from Ranger: The Journal of the Association of National Park Rangers, and Courier, the National Park Service’s in-house magazine in 1989;
- a gallery of images from the Yellowstone fires;
- a series of articles on interpretation of fire, also dating from 1989.
For more information on the impacts on Yellowstone, please go to Yellowstone’s web page on the history of the fires.
Credit for the information goes to www.nps.gov