Yellowstone officials expect 2017 to be an “average” fire season, especially if the summer stays as dry as it has so far.
The news comes after last year’s fire season, which saw the most fire activity in Yellowstone National Park since 1988. 1988, of course, is famous for being a year of big blazes, with nearly a million acres burned and landmarks threatened—including the Old Faithful Inn.
According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, while the average has changed over the years, experts expect 2017 to play out less severely than 2016. They offered this prognostication with caveats, however. From the Chronicle:
“If it doesn’t start to rain, we’re going to be very dry here very soon,” said Becky Smith, the fire ecologist with the park.
Park fire officials held a press conference here Monday where they told reporters that they expect an “average” fire season this year — provided some rain falls and the park isn’t hit with a barrage of dry lightning at an inopportune time.
What “average” means has been changing. Between 1972 and 2016, the park averaged total burns of about 5,900 acres each year. But in the last 10 years, the park has averaged upward of 13,700 acres burned. And in six of the last 10 years, the park has had more than 100 days of fire on the ground.
Dry stuff burns, and coming into the summer, Yellowstone looked pretty wet. Snowpack totals were higher than they have been in the last few years, and the snow stayed in the mountains well into the summer. But the last two months have been particularly dry, with some parts of the park receiving as little as 25 percent of normal precipitation from late April to late June.
“It turned off in May and June,” Smith said. “Will it turn on again?”
Besides being the largest fire season to hit Yellowstone in nearly three decades, 2016 also offered Yellowstone fire ecologists the chance to gauge how forest ecosystems scarred by the 1988 fires reacted to new blazes. Indeed, according to KBZK Bozeman, some of Yellowstone’s fire ecology team was surprised by how forests in fire scars reacted to new blazes:
“We definitely use all the numbers from the past to determine where we’re at and where we’re going for the fire season,” said Fire Ecologist Becky Smith.
“And really, that’s laid the groundwork for how we can manage fire in the park,” added Fire Management Officer John Cataldo. “Now, you know one of the first things we did last year with the Maple fire was to bring in a specialized fire behavior assessment team, to supplement our ability to start putting plots out there and photo points, and to shoot video of the fire actually moving through that. So, cameras that are highly insulated and we literally set ’em out in front of the Maple Fire and let it burn right over and through them, and then recovered the tape afterward.
“Just being able to have that equipment there on site, and see for ourselves how the fire was interacting with the landscape while it was moving through, that really helps tell the story.”
The pair feels confident that they now have a better idea of what fire is going to do.
“Especially based on, you know, if we look at our fire history map and and determine where the start is based on our fire history map,” said Smith. “Then we bring into account moisture, I would say the northeast is prime to burn at any moment. The Central Plateau and the Muir Plateau (are) a very good location for fire.”
Officials say about 60 percent of the fires in the park is naturally caused. And those fires are not fought, depending on their location and the fuels.
Cataldo says ideally they’d like to see about five, preferably in one area.
What’ll happen this year? That’s still to be determined. Yellowstone fire officials say that last year, for the first time, significant parts of new forests that have grown up in the scars of the 1988 blaze were burned once again. They say the fact that these young forests burned so widely came as something of a surprise.
In any case, Yellowstone is preparing to fight fires around the park, if necessary. According to the Chronicle, Cataldo currently has 28 wildland firefighters on staff who can monitor fire activity either by aerial survey or from lookouts. If need be, they can be quickly mobilized. From the Chronicle:
When they have too much activity, they will send firefighters in to knock down natural fires, something they had to do a few times in 2016, when roughly 100 square miles burned within the park.
“Every couple of days, we were putting smokejumpers on a new start,” Cataldo said.
The largest blaze in 2016 was the Maple fire. It burned about 45,000 acres in the northwest corner of the park, not far from the town of West Yellowstone.
Cataldo said the Maple fire was unique because it marched through the scar left by the wildfires of 1988, when nearly 800,000 acres burned in the park. Recent burn areas are a natural fire barrier, and the 1988 burn area had slowed down a number of blazes in the past.
“They would move into it a bit as long as the winds were high,” Cataldo said. “But as soon as the wind died, the fire would drop to the ground and have a really hard time getting back up.”
The Maple fire started within the fire scar and persisted for a long time. Because of that, a team of researchers was brought in to study its behavior so they can better understand how the rest of the 1988 fire scars might burn.
Fires have already started in the southwestern United States. All but six of Yellowstone’s wildland firefighters have already been sent to fires this year.