For everyone involved in the Yellowstone fires, there is a particular day that stands out above the rest. For Carol Shively, interpretive ranger, it was July 31st; the day the fire hit West Thumb. “We headed into the geyser basin to clear visitors, but some were reluctant to leave—they were captivated by the mushroom- like clouds of smoke rising to the north, the helicopters dipping low to fill their water buckets in the lake, and the planes dropping red retardant drops that streaked across the sky. And then it came. Tongues of fire whipped through the air and seemed to roll over the horizon toward us. With terrific force, the wall of flames approached the road, hesitated slightly, and then rushed up on the other side, even greater than before. The fire was crowning in the trees surrounding the geyser basin. I stood frozen in place, mesmerized by the sheer power before me.” (The Yellowstone Fires of 1988)
Yellowstone became a national park on March 1st 1872. It is the first and oldest national park in the world. A small portion of the park can be found in Montana and Idaho, but most of the park is in Wyoming. Yellowstone is commonly known for features such as the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, and the Old Faithful Geyser. Millions of people come from all over the globe to visit the beautiful sights of Yellowstone every year, but the summer of 1988 brought a shock to people everywhere. The summer of 1988 was the worst forest fires of Yellowstone in the parks history. It consumed vegetation faster than experienced firefighters ever thought possible.
Yellowstone’s landscapes have longed been shaped by fires. “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 trunks of the crowns of the pine and fir trees at several hundred year intervals.” (Wild land Fire in Yellowstone) Many of Yellowstone’s plants are fire-adapted. Some of the lodge pole pines have cones that are sealed until the intense heat of fire crakes them open and releases the seeds inside. Fires also help stimulate regeneration of sagebrush, aspen, and willows. Sometimes, though, the interaction of fires between these plants can be complicated by other influences such as grazing levels and climate. The above ground part of grasses and forbs may be consumed by the fires, but usually the below ground root systems typically remain unharmed. Commonly, a few years after a fire, these plants increase in productivity.
Yellowstone’s natural fire policy, for the first sixteen years, allowed fires to burn until they natural burned out as long as they were not caused by human activity, and as long as the fires did not threaten human lives, property, endangered species, or natural features. No one anticipated that the 1988 summer would be so drastically different. By June of 1988 Yellowstone was experiencing a severe drought. The early summer...