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After the fire: Lessons learned from 1988

Under a smoke-tinged sky, firefighters take a breather during the long, hot summer of 1988. Under a smoke-tinged sky, firefighters take a breather during the long, hot summer of 1988. Photo courtesy Shoshone National Forest

Many lessons were learned after 1988 Yellowstone fires



It was the summer of 1988, and a third of Yellowstone National Park was in flames. A sarcastic sign at Silver Gate, Mont., read, “Thanks, Mr. Barbee.”

Bob Barbee was Yellowstone’s superintendent at the time, and he was feeling the heat. Some critics dubbed him “Barbecue Bob.” Editorial page cartoons mocked him, and Wyoming politicians, including then-Sen. Alan Simpson, made sharp remarks about his performance.

Barbee admitted at the time that the critics’ jabs hurt. But he also said he felt the fires of ’88 were a freak occurrence, caused by an excessively dry summer, a massive build-up of fuel and high winds that pushed the fires through the region.

That summer and fall, 248 fires started in the greater Yellowstone area, according to the National Park Service, and 50 of those were in Yellowstone National Park. Most of the fires were squelched quickly, but 31 burned, often out of control. Of those 31 long-running fires, 28 began inside the park.

Most of the damage — 95 percent, according to the NPS — was caused by seven major fires, five of which started outside Yellowstone. All told, 1.2 million acres burned, including about 793,000 acres within the 2.2-million acre park.

Many members of the public, fueled by dramatic, at times inaccurate, reports from the media, viewed it as a disaster that could have been prevented — or at least reduced — by swifter, smarter action by NPS staffers. Even some people working with Yellowstone officials felt defeated.

“It’s hopeless,” a meteorologist reported prior to Black Saturday on Aug. 20, as fires in Yellowstone reached 480,000 acres, Barbee recalled recently.

The media firestorm added to the sense of doom. Television and newspaper reporters seemingly were everywhere filming and writing as the park was supposedly decimated. The message that went out across the nation and the world was that America’s first and most famous national park was going up in smoke.

And Bob Barbee was the man in the hot seat.

“He (Barbee) was captain of the ship and sort of got blamed for the fires in Yellowstone,” Tom Nichols said last week. Nichols is the National Park Service chief of fire aviation in Boise, Idaho.

But people’s dire predictions didn’t come true. The park survived, and important lessons on fire management and suppression were learned. In the end, Yellowstone renewed itself.

Nichols said the public and media shouldn’t have placed the burden of blame on Barbee 25 years ago, because future park superintendents may fear their decisions will be panned. They may suppress all fires even if the naturally ignited fires benefit forest health in the long run, Nichols said.

In 1998, NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw admitted to Barbee he was wrong to criticize fire policy, Barbee said. Thirty years later Barbee, 77, takes the media and people’s condemnation in stride.

“If you start taking these things personal, you’ll end up in the funny farm,” he said during a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition on Sept. 21.

A shift in policies

Before 1988, NPS policy called for full suppression of most fires, said Clint Dawson, assistant fire management officer for Shoshone National Forest in Cody. That seemed like a good idea, but it had some unintended consequences.

By not allowing natural fires to burn for a century, trees became homogeneous in species and size. The policy of full suppression allowed forests to age and accumulate fuels like down timber, Dawson said.

The “let it burn” policy associated with Barbee actually was initiated in California’s Sequoia National Park in 1968. But that policy never advanced the notion of allowing fires to completely run their course, Nichols said.

Gradually, the parks started to shift away from that belief.

In the late 1960s, Park Service policy was moving away from full suppression efforts and encouraged park leaders to manage fires, using the restorative qualities to remove fuels and allow new growth, as long as the fire didn’t threaten property or people, Nichols said.

“In 1972, Yellowstone was one of several national parks that initiated programs to allow some natural fires to run their course,” according to “The Yellowstone Fires: A Primer on the 1988 Fire Season,” a National Park Service report published in October 1988.

If natural-caused fires are allowed to burn and don’t threaten infrastructure, property or people, they create mosaic (checkerboard) patterns in the forest, leaving multi-aged timber. Old burns act as natural fire barriers when the big fire comes, Dawson said.

“It’s kind of a self-checking system,” Dawson said.

Pine beetles invaded isolated pockets in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the 1990s, and during the last decade, beetles decimated Shoshone forests because large trees were in close proximity. When trees that are the same age and size are near each other, beetles can leap-frog from tree to tree, Dawson said.

Beetles won’t survive in mosaic landscapes if they must fly far to reach a new host, and young trees are less susceptible to beetles, Dawson said.

But few, if any, people were thinking about beetles and tree patterns 25 years ago. They were trying to understand why more than a million acres of land was either in ashes or still ablaze.

By July 21, 1988, Yellowstone firefighters were in full suppression mode, but quashing flames was frustrated by lack of rain. Based on precipitation records, fire managers anticipated rain in July to at least reduce the flames, but it did not rain. Firefighters in the Shoshone and Bighorn national forests, also were hampered by drought.

The fire was going to burn regardless of efforts on the ground because of dry conditions. It wouldn’t be extinguished until it snowed that fall, Nichols said.

Two people died in wildfire-related aircraft crashes in the summer of 1988, but neither was a firefighter, and neither died in Yellowstone.

According to the NPS, $120 million was spent on fire suppression — approximately $237 million in today’s dollars — making a mockery of claims that not enough was being done to battle the fires of ’88.

Sharing fire information

Since 1988, fire managers have striven to keep the public and stakeholders well-informed with timely, accurate information. In more recent times, they’ve adopted social media for additional dissemination. “We’ve made a concerted effort to get the information out,” Dawson said.

For example, Shoshone personnel kept upper South Fork of the Shoshone River residents informed about this summer’s Hardluck Fire. They updated locals and apprised the Wyoming Game & Fish Department and outfitters how the fire could impact hunting, Dawson said.

Hardluck, 52 miles southwest of Cody, burned about 24,600 acres.

Big fires on public lands now have fire information officers who keep the media and public updated.

Following 1988, and particularly after 2000, the Park Service hired communication specialists, bringing more accurate and timely attention to the public.

In 1988, computer models predicted fire behavior and direction, but the ones in use today are far superior. Fire managers are better prepared now, and fewer firefighters are placed at risk. Fire managers never had tackled the sheer number of and size of fires like those in 1988, Dawson said.

Efforts were made after 1988 to share fire information with other agencies and for fire managers to determine the amount of resources available while planning prescribed fires or wildfire management. New models also analyze the potential for precipitation and air quality. Since 1988, fire managers have better models to predict where a fire will spread. They can make long-term projections and marshal resources where they are most effective, Nichols said.

Today, firefighters have modern technology at their fingertips such as GPS and iPads, but that equipment can’t replace boots on the ground wielding shovels and pulaskis.

“Some of these tools were the same 100 years ago,” said Olga Troxel, land management specialist and fire information for Shoshone National Forest.

In 1988 people feared the spread of wildfires and the damage.

Today, folks have a greater understanding of how fire affects forests. “People tend to get it that fires are part of the ecosystem,” Nichols said.

Nature’s way

When scientists were collecting data and forming conclusions, nature had a reclamation agenda of its own.

Barbee understood that and resisted pressure to seed forests.

Mother Nature already was restoring her forests when the fires of 1988 ended, and he recognized that, even if others missed it then and in future years.

Years later, when Superintendent Mike Finley (1994-2001) was at Yellowstone’s helm, a visiting Russian forester was awestruck at what he misconstrued as cultivated lodgepole pines. He was picnicking with Finley near Madison Junction, where fire raged in 1988, when he spotted the stand of trees.

Amid a carpet of millions of lodgepole, the Russian asked, “Mike, how did you plant all those trees?”

Finley had to tell him that no man had done so. Nature was taking its course.

Then-President George H.W. Bush also was amazed with the lush lodgepoles during a tour of the park.

“This is a natural event,” Barbee explained to the president.

Lodgepole pine, representing around 80 percent of the trees in Yellowstone, produces both serotinous (meaning coming late) and nonserotinous cones. Serotinous cones can hang from tree branches for decades. Fire melts the resin, allowing cones to open and deposit their seeds, said Roy Renkin, supervisory vegetation specialist at the Yellowstone Center for Resources in Mammoth Hot Springs.

Serotinous lodgepole cones may release millions of seeds per hectare — a hectare equals 2.47 acres — and the seedlings thrive in the sunny post-fire environment, said F.E. Clements’ 1910 paper, “The Life History of Lodgepole Burn Forests.”

It takes 15 to 20 seconds to completely torch most tree crowns.

“Maximum germination rates for serotinous cone seeds ranged from 37 to 64 percent and occurred after 10 to 20 seconds exposure of cones to flames,” Don Despain wrote in “Simulation of Crown Fire Effects on Canopy Seed Bank in Lodgepole Pine,” in 1996.

Now, 25 years later, an untrained eye will be unable to identify areas in Yellowstone that burned in 1988, Renkin said.

The poster child of Yellowstone’s comeback can be seen about six miles east of Norris Junction. A blowdown some believed was a result of a tornado left scattered timber on the ground like matchsticks in 1984. Then, like a blazing wrecking ball, the fire arrived, leaving a stark and sterile wasteland of prostrate trees like blackened bones and snags like accusatory charred fingers cursing the sky.

Twenty-five years ago, the area appeared barren and hopeless.

Now it is a healthy forest with a only a trace of its incendiary past. Today scattered old snags slant into the sky at drunken angles. Other snags, long since succumbing to gravity and decay, lie in crisscross patterns like wreckage from ancient sailing ships amid pristine green. New trees rise from the clutter, some short, some as high as 40 feet or more.  

Around $1 million was spent in reclamation to prevent washouts and stream sedimentation in the Shoshone after the 1988 fires. “We did a lot of seeding particularly in the Crandall area,” Dawson said.

However, after 1988, there has been limited reclamation following Shoshone fires. “It (the forest) repairs itself naturally in a few years,” Dawson said.

After the Gunbarrel Fire of 2008, crews performed some trail work and limited seeding, Dawson said.

Gunbarrel, on the North Fork of the Shoshone River, burned approximately 67,000 acres.

Remnants of the 1988 fires in Shoshone Forest can be viewed by looking south from the Clark’s Fork Overlook off Wyo. 296 or by hiking the North Fork of the Shoshone River trailhead off U.S. 14-16-20 a few miles east of Yellowstone’s East Entrance. Where there once was black timber, slow-growing pines endeavor to make a stand, competing with grass and forbs. Downed snags weathered white with time are piled this way and that like a mislaid rail fence. Without the thick timber, folks have an almost unencumbered view of the river sparkling like a priceless gem.

After 1988, Shoshone personnel were beginning to realize the merit of natural fires, especially in wilderness areas where values — homes, lodges or other property — are not threatened, Dawson said.

The public, greatly relieved that a national treasure was still standing, poured into the park, setting an attendance record in 1989. Now, more than 3 million people visit Yellowstone every year.

Even as the flames cooled and the park began to heal, Barbee was reflecting on how it would recover. He told The Deseret News in September 1988 that he was optimistic.

“Yellowstone Park is still all here. There will be a changed face to Yellowstone, but not a devastated face, not a destroyed face — that’s just folly, that’s myth,” he said. “What there will be is just a different face. This event provides a great educational opportunity to see what a powerful force like fire can do, and how the land responds to it.”

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