Yellowstone: Back from the Ashes
Despite all the vivid images of terror, chaos and destruction displayed during the cataclysmic 1988 wildfires here, the United States' first and most widely recognized national park has returned to normal.
At least as normal as nature gets.
Twenty years have passed since 36 percent of Yellowstone's 1.4 million acres erupted in the forest fire of the century.
Visitors to the park today are amazed both by the evidence of recovery and the stark reminders of the ferocious flames.
"Driving through the park, it just broke my heart. I had no idea of the extent [of the fires]. The logs are still black, making it look like it just happened," Janet Jensen of Egg Harbor, N.J., said earlier this summer while touring the park. The first-time visitor, though, also saw swatches of lush green forest. "It is wonderful to see how nature is working to rebuild itself."
The 1988 catastrophe that made headlines around the world was an unforgettable spectacle of nature, to be sure. But the fires and the "let it burn" policy used to fight them also ignited a national debate about wildfire management on public lands that continues today.
Were the fires properly managed for the long-term good of the park? National Park Service officials say that question has been the topic of more than 250 research projects pursued by scientists eager to study the epic 100-year event in a forest largely untouched by humans.
What most found is that nature is not only well-prepared for catastrophic fires, but in fact depends on them to maintain a healthy ecosystem.
"The public, and even some ecologists, feared that the 1988 fires had produced a desolate area of uniform devastation, but this was not the case," Monica G. Turner, a University of Wisconsin fire research specialist, wrote along with others in an Ecological Society of America paper. "Instead, one of the most striking features . . . was the post-fire heterogeneity of the burned landscape."
Animals adapt: Wild fires terrify humans, but wildlife appears to be prepared for them as a matter of course. Observers in 1988 reported Rocky Mountain elk and grizzly bears casually moving out of timber stands and into open meadows as flames approached in 1988. Many grazed nonchalantly as the forest went up in flames.
"A lot of people were disappointed that we didn't describe a 'Bambi' scenario with all the chaos of animals hellbent for leaving the park," said Roy Renkin, a Yellowstone fire behavior specialist. "Oftentimes some segment of the [elk] herd would move back into the forest very soon after the flames had left."
As people watched their beloved park burn, many mourned the wildlife they held precious memories of observing over the years. Many feared Yellowstone would never again be able to sustain such a rich and diverse collection of wild animals.
John Jensen of New Jersey knew better.
"Wild fires look bad at first, but the area comes back nice and green and that is good for the animals," he said.
Researchers confirm Jensen's theory.
"Contrary to what a lot of people believe, fire is actually good for wildlife," said Tom Olliff, chief of the Yellowstone Center for Resources. "It creates diverse habitats in both space and time."
Olliff said the fires created open meadows next to stands of ancient lodgepole pines. Together, the habitats provide the necessities of shelter and food for a variety of animals.
With the exception of moose, which lost a lot of their winter range when canopy forest burned, most species showed little lasting negative impact from the massive blazes.
Forest through the trees: Americans received a botany lesson in the months following the fires. Concerned citizens, namely elementary school classes and nonprofit groups, raised money to buy seedlings to help park officals bring back the forests.
The seedlings, though, were unnecessary and ended up in a national forest on the edge of Yellowstone.
Two types of cones produced by lodgepole pines teach the lesson.
One cone matures in two years and begins dropping seeds. The other, called a serotinous cone, only releases its seeds from a protective waxy resin when exposed to a temperature of at least 113 degrees Farenheit.
Such a release only happens in Yellowstone during a crown fire when flames spread to the tops of trees. During fires, even as flames are killing trees, serotinous cones release a tremendous number of seeds to start the next forest.
Renkin and other researchers counted seed in sections of the forest after the fires and the results were amazing.
"We found numbers ranging from 15,000 to 2 million seeds per acre being put out on the landscape," Renkin said.
On some plots, 2,000 to 12,000 seeds germinated. The highest densities came back at 50,000 seedlings per acre in the post-burn areas.
The explosion in native plant growth following the fires immediately eased park officials' concerns that exotic species would take advantage of the opportunity to establish themselves in Yellowstone.
In 1988, 30 percent of the park was made up of what Renkin calls climax lodgepole pine forest that had not burned in 300 years.
The trees were already dead or at the end of their lifespan and were "an accident waiting to happen, just waiting to burn," Renkin said.
The fires burned roughly 20 percent of those trees.
"The fire came through here and we had ash [about 18 inches] deep," Renkin said during a tour of the "blowdown area" between the Norris and Canyon intersections in the park's center. "This place looked like the bottom of a barbecue grill. It was nuked, there is no other description. People said we would be lucky to get anything to grow here. Now the quickest growing trees in the park are right here. Some are already 18 feet."
Calming the critics: Marilynn and Jim Tanner of Hot Springs Village, Ark., in September 1988 watched in horror as the evening news reported headlines from the Yellowstone wildfires.
The couple cherished their memories of the park and "we were distressed by the fact the park rangers had let it burn," Marilynn Tanner said. "I know they had their reasons, but it was hard to believe they were good reasons with all the flames and scorched wood on the news every night."
The Tanners have returned to Yellowstone twice since1988, most recently in June to attend a 50th wedding anniversary celebration.
"You see it today and you think 'maybe they were right after all,' " Jim Tanner said.
Those still studying the park today think they were right.
Renkin, a researcher at Yellowstone for more than 30 years, said he has scoured the forest since 1988 looking for evidence of other infernos, such as fire scars on trees. He has detected two such events: one in 1852 that burned at least 150,000 acres; and another in the early 1700s.
"It seems like a phenomena that has happened once a century for the past three centuries," he said. "If I was a betting man, I'd say that sometime this century, there will be another fire event along the same line; we just probably won't be around to see it."
Nature, regardless, will continue to take its course.
Experience the 1988 fires in the park