Twenty-five years ago, in a drought-parched and wildfire-swollen summer, 248 separate blazes charred 1.2 million acres in the greater Yellowstone area, while 50 fires inside Yellowstone National Park consumed more than a third of the park’s grounds. To date, it’s the worst wildfire in Yellowstone history.
Tuesday, Aug. 20, marks a quarter-century since Yellowstone's worst single day, when, according to the National Park Service, winds increased the fire’s range by 150,000 acres.
This photo gallery includes more information from the Park Service’s “
History of Wildland Fire in Yellowstone” and features scenes from a summer when fires in and near the park roared through more than a million acres over several weeks, shut down tourism and prompted government officials to reconsider their fire mitigation efforts. — Tim Skillern By midcentury, ecologists recognized that fighting fires often meant, paradoxically, letting them burn. Fire helps prepare fertile ground for seed germination and clears away dead undergrowth. Fire, scientists noted, might blacken the ground, but it leaves roots unscathed. According to the National Park Service, from 1972 to 1987 — the first 16 years of Yellowstone’s fire policy — park management permitted 235 fires to burn 33,759 acres. All these fires naturally burned out, and only 15 consumed more than 100 acres. Because of extremely wet summers in the six years preceding the 1988 blazes, relatively few fires burned in the park. That wet climate continued into April and May, but drought hit hard in June and the summer of 1988 would be the driest in the park's history. About 8,500 acres burned by July 15. Within a couple of weeks, fires in the park covered 99,000 acres. By Aug. 21, fire had scorched more than 400,000 acres. According a New York Times story from Sept. 22, 1988, Rep. Pat Williams, then a Montana Democrat on the House Interior Committee, said the stand-back policy of letting the fires burn was “a tragic mistake.” The Park Service says the fires killed a number of park animals, including 345 elk, 36 deer, 12 moose, six black bears and nine bison. In 1988, an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 elk lived in Yellowstone. By 1992, the park updated its wildfire mitigation plan, notably restricting the circumstances in which it would allow naturally-occurring blazes to peter out. The Yellowstone fire prompted other national parks and forests to reconsider their fire-containment plans. No firefighters or visitors died in the blazes. A falling tree killed one firefighter outside the park, and another died in a plane accident. In 1988, Yellowstone covered 2,221,880 acres. The fires burned 793,000 of them, or about 36 percent. More than 25,000 firefighters battled the blaze at a cost of about $120 million. Seven large fires were responsible for 95 percent of the burned areas, the Park Service says. The fires destroyed 67 buildings, including 19 cabins, causing $3 million in property damage. Lodgepole pines dominated Yellowstone, accounting for nearly 80 percent of the park’s forests, according to the Park Service. And, in the absence of fire, says the U.S. Forest Service, lodgepole pines can struggle against other species. Fire can be a forest’s best friend. Some lodgepole pines propagate more effectively after a wildfire, when triple-digit temperatures crack open resin-coated pinecones and release the seeds. The Park Service discovered that seed densities of the lodgepole pine ranged from 50,000 to 1 million per square acre after the fire, ushering in an era of regrowth. In this photo taken after the fires, seedlings sprout from burned earth. Park administrators at the time saw the fire as an opportunity for species’ re-emergence. A Los Angeles Times story from Aug. 24, 1988, quoted Joan Anzelmo, a Yellowstone spokeswoman: “We are witnessing a historic event of epic proportions. It will change Yellowstone significantly. Your favorite back country spot is not going to look the same." Yellowstone, indeed, recovered quickly. According to a paper published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, vegetative regrowth and propagation, especially of lodgepole pines, were evident the year after the fire.