This photo was taken in Yellowstone National Park near the
Old Faithful Geyser in June of 1999, 11 years after the fires.
Burned out trees remain standing, although new trees are rising to take
Yellowstone National Park gained its "national park" status on March 1,
1872 making it the first and oldest national park in the world. Located
primarily between 44 and 45 degrees north latitude and 110 and 111
degrees west longitude, most of the park is found in the state of
Wyoming but also has portions in Idaho and Montana. The park covers
3,400 square miles (2.2 million acres or 850,000 hectares), is
approximately 83% forest land, has an average summer precipitation of
about 33 mm per month, and consists of large volcanic plateaus of
Quaternary rhyolitic rocks surrounded by mountains of predominantly
andesitic rocks. It is widely known for such features as the Old
Faithful Geyser and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and has been
visited and loved by millions of people throughout the world. In the
summer of 1988, however, the worst forest fires in the park's 116-year
history consumed vegetation faster than even the more experienced fire
fighters even thought possible (National Park Service, 1; Renkin,
37-38; Turner, 732; Finley-HolidayVideo).
The amount of acreage that was consumed by fire is quite astonishing.
Flames engulfed a grand total of 1.4 million acres in and around
Yellowstone, although only 793,880 acres were actually within the park
boundaries. This is an amazing 36% of the park! Attempts to extinguish
the fires resulted in the largest fire fighting effort ever. A total of
9,500 fire fighters came from all over the country to participate in
what would eventually become a $140 million dollar effort. They built
more than 800 miles of fire line, used 117 aircraft, brought in more
than 100 fire engines, and dropped more than 1,000,000 gallons of fire
retardant. In spite of this incredible effort, they failed to stop any
of the fires from running their course. In the end, it was only the
fall rain and snow that stopped the fires (Billings, 11).
(2) The "natural burn" policy
The 1988 fire season in Yellowstone began when a single lightning
strike set a small group of pines ablaze on June 22. Officials weren't
initially worried. A Yellowstone Public Affairs Specialist said "We
knew it had started naturally, and we assumed the summer rains would
keep it in check. What we didn't know was that [the] summer was going
to be one of the driest and windiest since the park was established in
1872." The fires were initially allowed to burn under the controversial
"natural burn" policy. This policy allowed fires to run their natural
course as long as they were not caused by human activity (such as fires
started by improperly extinguished camp fires or careless use of
cigarettes), and as long as the fires did not threaten human lives,
property, endangered species, or natural features. The origins of this
policy extend back to 1968 when the National Park Service officially
recognized that fire was essential for the maintenance of an ecosystem.
A policy was adapted in 1972 that reflected this position. All
naturally caused fires, such as those started by lightning, would be
allowed to burn without suppression. The "natural burn" area was
limited to 300,000 acres in Yellowstone until 1974 when the policy was
extended to include nearly the entire park. When fires began to burn
out of control in late June and early July of 1988, critics who did not
understand the importance of fire began to refer to the "natural burn"
policy as the "let it burn" policy. The fires in Yellowstone were
allowed to burn until July 22, 1988 when it was decided that all fires
would be actively fought. At this time, however, not even 50,000 acres
had been burned. (Yoxall, 16; Hardy-Short, 108-9; Billings, 16,20).
Many politicians, news reporters, and average citizens began to express
intense anger because of the "natural burn" policy. Two Wyoming
senators demanded that National Park Superintendent William Mott be
fired. Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel told Good Morning America
on July 23, 1988, "We're not going to let Yellowstone be damaged by
this." The news media was one of the worst critics, however, and
frequently used the phrase "let it burn." The Billings Gazette
questioned why Yellowstone Park Superintendent Robert Barbee "rode a
dead policy into hell." The Richmond News Leader wrote, "If you want to
see the world's largest charcoal grill, just visit Yellowstone. Be sure
to say, 'Thank you, environmentalists!'" The Wall Street Journal wrote,
"Yellowstone Burns as Park Managers Play Politics." (Hardy-Short,
(3) Ecological succession
Much of these attacks, however, were rooted in the emotions of people
who did not understand the natural cycle of life, death and rebirth. In
the years that followed the 1988 fire, two biologists, Dr. William H.
Romme and Dr. Don G. Despain, studied the fire dynamics and history of
the Yellowstone forest, placing special emphasis on ecological
succession. Dr. Romme concluded, "I don't think any fire management
policy would have greatly altered the events of 1988." (Stevens, 28)
The findings of Dr. Romme and Dr. Despain were published in the
November 1989 issues of BioScience and Scientific American.
The stages of succession are summarized as follows (Stevens, 28):
The first stage: Small plants and young lodgepole
pines spring up among dead trees, both standing and fallen, that have
been left after a large forest fire. This stage lasts about 50 years.
The forest is not very flammable because the trees are widely spaced
and the vegetation is low lying, green, and moist.
The second stage: The pines form dense stands up to
50 feet tall, and their shade blocks the growth of much ground
vegetation. This stage lasts about 100 years. Flammability is low at
this stage. There is still some deadwood on the ground, but should this
ignite, the treetops are too high to be affected.
The third stage: The original pines are thinning out
and ground vegetation is increasing. Fir and spruce trees appear. This
stage lasts about 100 years. Green vegetation on the forest floor
prevents large fires until late in the stage when small trees can
provide fuel by which fire can spread into the canopy high above.
The fourth stage: The original lodgepole pines are
dying. Woody fuel is abundant, and this is the most flammable stage.
The forest is ready for a major outbreak of fire. However, weather
conditions must be exactly right for a major outbreak of fire to occur.
(4) Weather, wind, and drought
The forests of Yellowstone were in the fourth stage of succession in
1988. There is some disagreement among scientists, however, as to how
much of a role ecological succession played in the Yellowstone fires.
Many scientists have noted that the fires of 1988 spread quickly
through all four succession stages of forest and appeared to be most
influenced by weather conditions such as lack of precipitation, wind
speed, and wind direction. These scientists believe that the major
reason that the fires were so extensive was because of the unusually
severe drought and high winds that characterized 1988. The fires were
also aided by the fact that Yellowstone was covered with extensive and
continuous forests. Ecological succession was a factor, but it was not
the primary cause of the severity of the fires. Other scientists
believe that ecological succession played a major role in the fires,
and that the fires of 1988 could have happened any time after 1930 when
many of the trees entered the fourth stage. Whatever the role of
ecological succession, all scientists seem to be in agreement that the
summer of 1988 provided the right combination of heat, drought, and
strong winds, and these coincided with multiple fires ignited primarily
by lightning. It is believed that the last time fires of this magnitude
occurred in Yellowstone was in the 1700's. (Turner, 732; Stevens, 28)
The following table is a summary of the fire seasons from 1972 through
1988, and shows the exceptional drought conditions that existed in 1988
Area burned (hectares)
% Normal Precipitation
* No data ** Does not include 1988 data
It is clear that 1988 was the driest year, with only 32% of the normal
precipitation falling. In fact, the region started drying out as early
as the fall of 1987 when the expected autumn rains failed to manifest
themselves. A record low snow pack and early spring run-off followed
the winter. By June of 1988, the Palmer Drought Index, which measures
precipitation, soil moisture, and evaporation, indicated extreme
drought conditions in Yellowstone. During the period of 1972 through
1988, 335,833 hectares burned, but an astonishing 95.7% (321,833
hectares) burned during 1988 alone! (Billings, 17; Renkin, 39)
(5) "Black Saturday" and the heart of the fire
The worst of the fire season did not begin until Saturday, August 20,
1988, a day now referred to as "Black Saturday." A cold front passed
through during the morning hours. Winds increased to and sustained
themselves at 30 to 40 miles per hour with gusts as high as 70 miles
per hour. The fires exploded into gigantic firestorms that sent flames
as high as 200 feet into the air. Fires grew so large that they created
their own wind. An additional 165,000 acres burned on "Black Saturday,"
an increase of more than 50%. Smoke pushed up to 30,000 feet. A fire on
the northeast end of Yellowstone, named the Storm Creek fire, made a
10-mile run. A fire on the north side of Yellowstone, named the
Hellroaring fire, ran an average of one mile per hour for 8 hours. The
fire season had only just begun! (Billings, 37-52; Finley-Holiday
One reporter from the Billings Gazette spent "Black Saturday" with fire
fighters at a fire on the western side of Yellowstone named the North
Fork fire. He described the sound of a firestorm just before a shift in
the wind direction brought the flames toward the group and send people
running toward their vehicles to make an escape (Billings, 39):
"As it nears, a wildfire creates much the same sensation as an
approaching train. First you hear - almost feel - a distinct rumble.
Puffs of black smoke appear in the columns of gray - a sign of greater
burning intensity - and the sound of the fire increases. Then whiffs of
air hit the back of your neck as you face the fire, evidence that the
fire is creating its own wind, sucking oxygen from around the ground to
sustain itself, then blowing it thousands of feet into the air in a
boiling column of smoke. As the inferno nears, it roars like a jet
engine as the blaze sucks more and more in. You can feel the heat and
see the flames half a mile away. Thick smoke occasionally obscures the
blaze and noise dissipates for a moment as the flames gasp momentarily
for air before making the next leap."
Flames and firestorms threatened settlements and towns in and around
Yellowstone. They would continue to devour the forests until fall rains
and snows put them out. A firestorm swept through Old Faithful on
September 6, destroying 16 cabins but sparing Old Faithful Inn. All
attempts to stop the fires would be fail until the first significant
rain came on September 11. Snow fell the following morning, and light
precipitation fell off and on over the next several days. The fires
were all out by the end of October.
(6) Rebirth and the cycle of life
Many people thought that Yellowstone would never recover. Scientists,
however, knew that fire was a necessary part of the cycle of life in a
forest. Life would not only go on, but would also benefit from the
fire. The fires left large patches of cleared ground opened to the sun.
Seeds released from pinecones took root almost immediately. Lodgepole
pine seedlings began to grow at the rate of an inch or two per year.
Wildflowers were abundant by the following spring, and the grasses and
shrubs were a rich green. Nutrients from the ash caused the vegetation
to prosper. Trees that didn't fall became feeding grounds for insects,
and the insects in turn attracted many woodpeckers. The holes left by
woodpeckers attracted many birds that used them for nests. Yellowstone
was far from dead! (Yoxall, 16)
The fire had very little negative effects on the animals. There were
396 large animal deaths from the fire, most by smoke inhalation,
including 9 bison, 6 black bears, and 333 elk. Thousands of elk
perished during the following winter because of a lack of food, but the
elk population rebounded to pre-fire numbers by 1993. (Billings, 99)
The fire had many short-term consequences on terrestrial ecosystems
including a greater availability of nutrients from ash, widespread soil
modification, and changes in water chemistry in rivers and streams.
Increases in suspended-sediment loads in streams resulted in a greater
fish mortality rate, but scientists studying this phenomenon expected
the concentrations of suspended-sediment in streams to decline as
terrestrial vegetation recovered and as soils stabilized. (Bozek, 91)
There does seem to be one casualty of the fire. The aspen are not
recovering as expected. Aspen is a minor species in Yellowstone
covering only about 2% of the park, but is significant because it is
the only deciduous tree found in the forest. Aspen, located primarily
in the northern winter range of Yellowstone, support a large number and
a wide diversity of birds and animals. Fire destroyed 22% of the
northern range, including many of the mature aspen, but new sprouts
were produced. These sprouts, however, were fed on by thousands of elk
that spend the winter months in the northern winter range. The aspen
are not expected to recover to pre-fire levels. The last major episode
of aspen tree regeneration occurred between 1870 and 1890, a
historically unique time when elk, beaver, and moose were not as
abundant because market hunting in the 1860's and 1870's reduced the
populations. Several large fires had occurred in the region prior to
1886. These fires produced a large number of new sprouts. With a low
number of animals to feed on the spouts, the aspen were allowed to
prosper. Climatic conditions were moist in the late 1800's which could
have enhanced the regeneration of aspen. Better summer growing season
conditions advanced the aspen sprouts, and deeper snows during the
winter months probably protected many of the seedlings from being
eaten. A combination of these factors has not occurred since that time.
For example, there was a dramatic reduction in the elk population
during the 1950's and 1960's, but this occurred during a dry climatic
periods with no fires. There was a moist decade in the 1910's, but this
coincided with a high population of elk, numerous beavers, and no
fires. Extensive fires occurred in 1988, but were accompanied by high
elk densities and generally dry climatic conditions. (Romme, 2097-2099,
The fate of the aspen, however, should not be seen as being
characteristic of the park as a whole. For the most part, Yellowstone
has benefited from the fires of 1988. It will again have beautiful and
healthy forests, although it will take several decades for the forest
to be restored. People must remember that the beauty of Yellowstone
before the fires was actually the result of previous fires. The fires
are a necessary part of the natural cycle of life, death, and re-birth.
Yellowstone is far from dead! (Hardy-Short, 119)
[About the author: Dr. Robert J. Ruhf received his Ph.D.
in Science Education from the Mallinson Institute for Science Education
at Western Michigan University in December 2006. He has also received a
Master of Arts degree in Geography with a concentration in
Environmental and Resource Analysis from Western Michigan University, a
Bachelor of Science degree in Meteorology from Central Michigan
University, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications from
Cornerstone University. He currently works for Science and Mathematics
Program Improvement (SAMPI) at Western Michigan University.]
The Billings Gazette staff. Yellowstone on Fire! Billings,
Montana: The Billings Gazette, 1995.
Bozek, Michael A., and Michael K. Young. ""Fish Mortality Resulting
from Delayed Effects of Fire in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem." The
Great Basin Naturalist, Vol. 54, No. 1, January 1994, pp. 91-95.
Finley-Holiday Films. "Yellowstone Aflame." A 1989 video highlighting
actual film footage of the 1988 Yellowstone National Park fire season.
Hardy-Short, Dayle C., and C. Brant Short. "Fire, Death, and Rebirth: A
Metaphoric Analysis of the 1988 Yellowstone Fire Debate." Western
Journal of Communication, 59, spring 1995, pp. 103-125.
National Park Service. "Yellowstone National Park."
Renkin, Roy A., and Don G. Despain. "Fuel moisture, forest type, and
lightning-caused fires in Yellowstone National Park." Canadian
Forestry of Forrest Research, Vol. 22, No. 1, January 1992,
Stevens, William K. "Biologists Add Fuel to Yellowstone Fire." Journal
of Forestry, Volume 88, No. 6, June 1990, pp. 27-28.
Romme, William H., Monica G. Turner, Linda L. Wallace, and Jennifer S.
Walker. "Aspen, Elk, and Fire in Northern Yellowstone National Park." Ecology,
Volume 76, No. 7, October 1995, pp. 2097-2106.
Turner, Monica G., William W. Hargrove, Robert H. Gardner, and William
H. Romme. "Effects of fire on landscape heterogeneity in Yellowstone
National Park, Wyoming." Journal of Vegetation Science, Vol. 5,
No. 5, 1994, pp.731-742.
Yoxall, Patty. "Yellowstone after the fire." Current Health 2,
Vol. 21, No. 4, December 1994, pp. 16-18.
Other interesting things I have written or co-authored: