Fires Burn Much of Yellowstone National Park

When wildfires burned 36 percent of Yellowstone National Park, controversy arose over fire management throughout the U.S. national park system.

Summary of Event

During the summer of 1988, wildfires swept through Yellowstone National Park. Because some of these fires began with lightning strikes, the National Park Service, following the fire management policies in effect at the time, did not initially try to put out all the fires. When the fires became uncontrollable, thousands of firefighters were called upon and millions of dollars were spent trying to extinguish the fires. Only when rains fell in October did the fires in the forests go out, but even then, fiery rhetoric continued to rage throughout the country. Yellowstone National Park;wildfires
Fires;Yellowstone National Park
National Park Service, U.S.;fire management policy
[kw]Fires Burn Much of Yellowstone National Park (Summer, 1988)
[kw]Yellowstone National Park, Fires Burn Much of (Summer, 1988)
[kw]National Park, Fires Burn Much of Yellowstone (Summer, 1988)
[kw]Park, Fires Burn Much of Yellowstone National (Summer, 1988)
Yellowstone National Park;wildfires
Fires;Yellowstone National Park
National Park Service, U.S.;fire management policy
[g]North America;Summer, 1988: Fires Burn Much of Yellowstone National Park[06820]
[g]United States;Summer, 1988: Fires Burn Much of Yellowstone National Park[06820]
[c]Disasters;Summer, 1988: Fires Burn Much of Yellowstone National Park[06820]
[c]Environmental issues;Summer, 1988: Fires Burn Much of Yellowstone National Park[06820]
Sholly, Dan R.
Shively, Carol A.

Forest fires vary widely in size and intensity. The majority of lightning-caused fires burn a single tree, or a few trees, before going out. Many forest fires are surface fires, burning near the ground only. Sometimes conditions favor more extensive fires, and burning will move up the trees to their crowns. Once a fire is in the crowns, particularly in dense stands of trees, there is often vigorous burning, which spreads until it reaches areas with little fuel to burn. Natural firebreaks, such as lakes, rivers, and barren rock outcrops, will usually limit the extent of a fire. The strategies used in fighting forest fires include the construction of artificial firebreaks, either through the removal of fuel with bulldozers and hand labor or through the use of controlled backfires.

If conditions are right, as they were in the Greater Yellowstone Area in 1988, forest fires are able to leap both natural and artificial firebreaks. Like any fire, a forest fire needs a source of ignition, fuel, and oxygen. Heat from the fire warms the air, which expands and rises. As a result, an area of low pressure develops at the location of the fire, causing oxygen-rich air to rush in and feed the flames. As a forest fire grows larger, the scale of this air exchange increases. Over the course of the summer of 1988, wildfires burned 720,000 acres in Yellowstone National Park, producing convection cells that rose 20,000 feet into the air. Six cold fronts with strong winds passed through the region that summer, combining with the fire’s convection cells to develop wind speeds of 70 miles per hour. These winds blew burning embers more than one mile ahead of the edge of the fire. Such fires are not easy to control or extinguish.

Seven major fires burned in the park that summer, but five (three anthropogenic, or human-caused, and two lightning-caused) had begun outside the park. The two that began within the park were both caused by lightning and were the only fires for which suppression was initially avoided, in keeping with fire management policies. By July 21, the extreme dryness of the summer had become apparent, and all new or existing fires were fought vigorously.

A bomber dropping liquid fire retardant in Yellowstone, 1988.

(NPS photo by Jeff Henry)

Fighting the fires constituted the largest, longest, and most expensive fire suppression effort in U.S. history to date. A dozen fixed-wing aircraft, seventy-seven helicopters, and 230 fire engines provided support for the 9,500 firefighters at work inside the park. Over the summer, 25,000 different firefighters fought the blazes at a cost of more than $100 million. For comparison, the San Francisco fire after the 1906 earthquake burned 490 city blocks (2,831 acres) but was fought by only 585 firefighters with about fifty pieces of apparatus.

The huge scale of the Yellowstone fires and the extremely dry condition of the plentiful fuel supply presented experts with a novel situation. These fires burned in ways that had not been observed before and defied expected patterns. As a result, nearly all the forecasts and predictions about how soon the fires would be controlled or how much they would burn were wrong. This confusion on the part of the experts led many to question the competence and the judgment of those who made such predictions.

The news media frequently reported the size of the area within the burning perimeter. During the fires, these media reports offered the best estimates available of how much land had been burned, but this perimeter encompassed many patches of slightly burned and totally spared forest. Initial estimates that 63 percent of the park was in some way affected by the fires decreased to 36 percent when careful surveys were done later. Only one-half of this area had crown fires that produced blackened forest. The impact on the animal life was also less severe than many people initially thought. Death tolls of large mammals amounted to 250 elk (out of 32,000 in the park), 9 bison (out of 2,700), 1 black bear, several grizzlies, 4 mule deer, and a few moose.

Important factors leading to such large fires include climatic conditions, the quantity and distribution of fuels, and the fire management practices in the park. The dry weather of 1988 was unprecedented in the recorded history of the area. This unusual dry spell extended throughout much of the Northwest. More than seventy-two thousand fires burned a total of five million acres that summer.

The types and amounts of fuel available in an area vary as a forest develops by natural succession. Much of the Yellowstone area is dominated by lodgepole pine forests, which are typically the result of 250 to 300 years of growth. Lodgepole pine forests Lodgepole pine forests are subclimax forests maintained by fire: A major fire removes much of the forest in an area and permits the lodgepole pinecones to release their seeds; the trees actually require fire for this to occur. The seedlings grow to become mature trees with a dense, nearly continuous canopy effectively shading most of the forest floor. As time goes on, some trees die, providing gaps in the canopy that permit sunlight to reach the forest floor. The spruces and firs that grow in these gaps might eventually become the climax forest of the region. At this stage, however, the forest is particularly flammable, and fires usually occur, starting the process once again. Much of the forest in Yellowstone was in this stage in 1988.

It has been suggested that, given the climatic and fuel conditions of that year, the fires should have been extinguished everywhere as soon as possible. If rainfall had been even close to average, permitting lightning-caused fires to burn would not have resulted in extraordinary alteration of the park. This aspect of the fire management policy received the most public attention, perhaps because letting fires burn seems counterintuitive. The criticism made by some resource managers, however, was that not enough fires were intentionally ignited during the period between 1972 and 1988.


Why were firefighters unable to control the Yellowstone fires? Why were resource managers unable to prevent the fires? These and similar questions dominated the news for much of the summer, and the unsettling answers held the attention of many Americans.

The fires could not be controlled because the winds blew and it did not rain. Yellowstone was not the only area to be plagued by fire in 1988. Throughout the West, the latest technologies, courageous firefighters, massive efforts, and $400 million in expenditures were of limited effectiveness as fires burned more than five million acres. The Yellowstone fires became a symbol of human frailty in the face of the power of nature. In the wake of years of apparently successful fire management in Yellowstone and elsewhere, many had come to believe that wildfires are controllable. Some experts believed that science and technology had triumphed over the vagaries of nature. The fires of 1988 put such notions in doubt.

Many natural disasters seem to be capricious events. Seen from the perspective of a human life span, this is often the case. The track of a particular hurricane devastates one Florida city while sparing another, for example; seen from the perspective of a time scale measured in centuries, however, it is clear that all of southern Florida experiences hurricanes. Still, the path and severity of a hurricane are effectively random. A community hit by a hurricane last year is just as likely as any other community in the area to be hit this year. This is not the case with wildfires. The occurrence of a fire removes accumulated fuel, making an imminent recurrence less likely. Similarly, the absence of fires permits fuel accumulation, increasing the probability of a larger fire in the future. The well-known slogan “Only you can prevent forest fires” would more accurately describe the situation if the word “postpone” were substituted for “prevent.” Professional resource managers and ecologists had accepted this truth decades earlier, but it was only with the Yellowstone fires of 1988 that the change in attitude toward fire management made its way to the general public.

The National Park Service has the conflicting missions of both preserving the national parks and ensuring that they are used for “the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” The thinking about how the service can best accomplish these missions has changed over the years. Up until the early 1940’s, Yellowstone park rangers held public bear-feeding shows with bleachers set up so that people could watch bears consume piles of garbage dumped on a wooden stage. Such activities now seem unthinkable. Similarly, fire policies have evolved. Until 1972, fire suppression was attempted on all fires, but in ensuing years, lightning-caused fires in Yellowstone were not suppressed. This policy evolution contributed to the fires of 1988.

The discussions inspired by the 1988 Yellowstone fires brought the overall management of the National Park Service into question. As the Park Service evolves over time, its policies are being reviewed not only by the professionals who know the most effective ways of achieving the service’s goals but also by the general public, as Americans want a say in establishing those goals. Events such as the fires in Yellowstone provide the impetus for such examination. Whether policies shift as a result or not, the questioning and involvement of the public are important and would not likely occur in the absence of such calamities.

The sense of loss among Americans following the 1988 fires was real. Many Americans believed that they had lost the opportunity to visit a national park. In the minds of much of the public, Yellowstone is a park rather than a nature preserve—a grand, all-natural theme park. Restrictions on use or access are resented, although the vast majority of visitors to the park rarely stray from the well-traveled roads. In the years following the fires, however, the restorative power of nature was clearly visible in the fire-damaged areas of the park. In the end, Yellowstone’s disaster presented a way for visitors to observe natural history inexorably at work in a natural “laboratory” setting. Yellowstone National Park;wildfires
Fires;Yellowstone National Park
National Park Service, U.S.;fire management policy

Further Reading

  • Barker, Rocky. Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2005. An environmental reporter discusses the history of fire management policy as well as the history of Yellowstone National Park. Includes map, bibliography, and index.
  • Brown, James K. “Should Management Ignitions Be Used in Yellowstone National Park?” In The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: Redefining America’s Wilderness Heritage, edited by Robert B. Keiter and Mark S. Boyce. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. Addresses the benefits and hazards associated with intentionally starting fires where they can do the most good and when appropriate conditions prevail. Concludes that, if such a program had been initiated in 1972, it would have cost $4 million and would have made the $100 million fire-suppression effort of 1988 unnecessary.
  • Franke, Mary Ann. Yellowstone in the Afterglow: Lessons from the Fires. Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyo.: National Park Service, 2000. Brief volume discusses the short-term effects of the fires on the park’s facilities as well as longer-term impacts on wildlife and aquatic habitats. Includes maps, photographs, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Knight, Dennis H. “The Yellowstone Fire Controversy.” In The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: Redefining America’s Wilderness Heritage, edited by Robert B. Keiter and Mark S. Boyce. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. Provides a concise, readable account of the various lines of reasoning supporting fire management policies in the Greater Yellowstone Area. Presents an excellent compilation of the facts involved and the controversies they engendered.
  • Pyne, Stephen J. “The Summer We Let Wild Fire Loose.” Natural History, August, 1989, 45-49. Questions Yellowstone’s policies regarding fire management. Argues that suppression of anthropogenic fires may have been unwise and criticizes the avoidance of intentionally set, prescribed burns.
  • Romme, William H., and Don G. Despain. “The Yellowstone Fires.” Scientific American 261 (November, 1989): 37-46. Discusses the 1988 fires, their causes, and their effects. Addresses the influence of policies concerning fire control on the size and severity of the fires in 1988 and examines how such policies might be beneficially modified. Includes excellent graphics.
  • Shively, Carol A. “A Smoke-Scented Diary.” Natural History, August, 1989, 34-41. Personal account by a ranger and naturalist at Yellowstone National Park conveys some of the awe, fear, and other emotions produced by the fires.
  • Sholly, Dan R., with Steven M. Newman. Guardians of Yellowstone. New York: William Morrow, 1991. Easy-to-read narrative reveals the conflicts played out between the wilderness and the public at Yellowstone Park, as seen through the eyes of its chief ranger. Contains graphic descriptions of bear maulings, hostage situations, and myriad other crises. Focuses in large part on the fires of 1988.
  • Varley, John D., and Paul Schullery. “Reality and Opportunity in the Yellowstone Fires of 1988.” In The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: Redefining America’s Wilderness Heritage, edited by Robert B. Keiter and Mark S. Boyce. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. Presents some of the climatic data available to fire management professionals before and during the fires. Reviews social and political issues raised by the fires.

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