YELLOWSTONE FIRES, THEN AND NOW

30 years after big fires of 1988, Yellowstone Park officials discuss the role of wildfire in the park
Monday, July 30, 2018
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Enterprise photo by Joseph Bullington
ABOVE:
In this July 23 photo, Park Fire Management Officer John Cataldo and Fire Ecologist Becky Smith survey a young lodgepole pine forest that burned in the 2016 Maple Fire, the first wildfire to burn entirely within the 1988 fire scar.
BELOW:
A sign at a pullout overlooks a lodgepole pine forest reseeded by the 1988 North Fork Fire in Yellowstone National Park, photographed here on July 23.

Enterprise photos by Joseph Bullington

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This July 23 photo shows plants such as goldenrod, dragonhead and lodgepole pine seedlings sprouting from ground around logs and trees charred by the 2016 Maple Fire in Yellowstone National Park.

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Park Fire Ecologist Becky Smiths points to a serotinous lodgepole seed cone that opened in the heat of the 2016 Maple Fire.

 

Last week when the Bacon Rind Fire burned across the northwestern Yellowstone boundary and into the park backcountry, firefighters monitored it but did not attempt to suppress the small blaze.

That’s because park managers don’t see wildfire as a threat to the park’s natural systems — they recognize it as a fundamental part of the natural systems they are charged to protect.

In fact, wildfire has shaped Yellowstone’s forests since those forests sprouted, in the wake of retreating glaciers, some 14,000 years ago. As a result, Yellowstone is what ecologists call a fire-adapted ecosystem.

“Fire is really an integral part of this landscape,” explained park Fire Management Officer John Cataldo on July 23. “Without fire, Yellowstone ceases to exist as we know it.”

Cataldo was not speaking in the abstract. He stood atop a burned-over hill backed by a charred forest of young lodgepole pines that jutted from the ground like blackened broom handles. All around him, the process of wildfire could be seen, doing its slow work.

The area burned in the North Fork Fire during the big fire season of 1988. It then burned again two years ago, in the Maple Fire of 2016. Already, two years after the burn, new life could be seen sprouting from the barren ground around charred logs and among the thin trunks: fireweed, goldenrod, dragonhead, lupine — and the young seedlings of the next generation of lodgepoles.

For Cataldo, the burned trees also signaled the conclusion of a different cycle: The Maple Fire was the first to burn completely within the ’88 burn scar.

“Until 2016, by and large, we considered that ’88 fire a barrier,” Cataldo said.

Now, those 28- to 30-year-old trees have reached maturity in the fire cycle.

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In 1972, 100 years after its creation, Yellowstone began experimenting with letting lighting-caused wildfires run their natural course on certain of its wilderness lands. This “natural fire policy” broke with decades of wildfire suppression in the West and helped pioneer the idea that wildfire is not simply bad but a healthy and undeniable part of many wild ecosystems.

The park’s current natural fire policy also allows firefighters and managers a lot of flexibility to decide how to manage a fire. According to Cataldo, there is only a quarter-mile buffer zone around developed areas in the park in which they are required to suppress fires. Otherwise, location is the overwhelming factor in deciding whether to suppress a fire or let it burn. Managers can also decide to suppress a fire on one flank — say, where it threatens structures or a road — while letting it burn into the backcountry on another flank.

“Our really rich fire history at Yellowstone is what lets us manage it the way we do,” said Cataldo.

After 1972, Yellowstone steadily expanded its natural fire program. For the first 15 years, 235 fires were allowed to burn 33,759 acres in the park, and the experiment went on without major controversy.

That changed in 1988, when dry conditions and heavy winds drove several huge fires in the park. On July 15 of that year, park managers suspended the natural fire policy, and began suppressing all fires in the park on July 21.

The park didn’t reinstate a natural fire policy until 1992.

According to park managers, suppression efforts in the fires of ’88 saved human life and property but had little impact on the fires themselves. By the time September rain and snow stopped the fires’ advance — accomplishing what $120 million and 10,000 firefighters could not — 36 percent of the park’s 2.2 million acres had burned.

Though nine of the fires were human-caused and 63 percent of the burned area was the result of fires that started outside the park, critics denounced the National Park Service for letting Yellowstone burn.

“Much of this beloved natural wonderland died this summer,” began a Chicago Tribune report, headlined “Requiem for a National Treasure.” The paper’s editors attacked “the folly” of the Park Service’s “excessive ecological idealism.”

Others, like park Fire Ecologist Becky Smith, drew different lessons from the ’88 fires — lessons about the vital role of wildfire on the Yellowstone landscape.

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In dry climates, said Smith, the process of decay is hindered by lack of water, essential to the digestive processes of bacterial and fungal decomposers. In the arid West, wildfire largely takes the place of decay in the life cycle, freeing and recycling the carbon and other life-fueling nutrients that would otherwise stay locked up in trees and other plants for hundreds of years.

“Combustion takes apart what photosynthesis puts together,” writes fire historian Stephen J. Pyne in his essay “The Fire of Life.” “It is among the most elemental of biochemical reactions; when it occurs in cells, we call it respiration, and when it occurs on landscapes, we call it fire.”

The ’88 fires opened up the forest floor and renewed the ground vegetation, said Smith. Nutrient-rich grasses, favored by elk and bison, flourished in the burn areas. And the trees themselves reseeded at the rate of thousand of seedlings per acre.

“Not only were transitional plants — fireweed, currant, raspberry — abundant within just a couple of years of the burn but also the vast majority of greater Yellowstone was on its way to rebuilding the same mix of vegetative communities that were present before the burn,” writes author Gary Ferguson in his recent book “Land on Fire.”

According to Smith, lodgepole pine forests — which make up 80 percent of Yellowstone — are “low frequency, high intensity” fire zones, which means they are adapted to periodic “stand replacement fires” — infrequent but big burns that kill huge numbers of old trees and seed the next generation. In fact, many lodgepoles bear serotinous cones — that is, resin-sealed seed cones that open only through exposure to the heat of fire.

Stand replacement fires sweep through lodgepole forests roughly every 300 to 500 years, said Smith, and massive fires like those in ’88 are “not wildly abnormal.”

Once one knows how to recognize the signs, it is difficult to look out across any vista in the park without seeing the mark of wildfire — mosaics of trees in different stages of regrowth, old butting up against young, dead snags jutting out of lively crowds of bright green trees. It changes the way one thinks about what a forest is.

According to Smith, sometimes people have a misconception about what a forest should look like.

At one point, she was asked whether an unburned section of forest was healthier than a burned one. “They’re both healthy,” she responded, “they just look different right now.”

A forest, she explained, especially a lodgepole forest, is not a static thing.

“It’s a constant cycle,” she said. “It’s constantly changing.”