Yellowstone fire management has seen many changes over the years, stemming from evolving knowledge and changes in federal protocol.
Nothing about the fires have changed; it’s not as if you can make a forest fire more efficient, the way you can with an internal combustion engine and the like. You can’t designate trees to burn and trees to stand. Neither will obey. And any attempt to engineer fires to burn in a manner more conducible to human gain and enjoyment is more or less out of the question.
No. What’s changed is how officials oversee and subsequently manage Yellowstone fires.
This article is intended as a brief runthrough of the history of Yellowstone fire management and fire’s role in Yellowstone National Park. It is neither comprehensive nor exhaustive — whole tomes have been written on the subject — but as a review of how fire management has evolved over the year, it should help inform you as Yellowstone fire season continues.
The Yellowstone National Park Service website is an invaluable source for information about fire in Yellowstone, as is Rocky Barker’s Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and chapter seven of Hal K. Rothman’s A Test of Adversity and Strength: Wildland Fire in the National Park System. In preparing this summary of Yellowstone fire management, I used those books and following webpages for dates, statistics, and basic information regarding Yellowstone fire management. Other sources (such as the 1992 and 2014 Fire Management plans) are sourced in the text below:
The first Yellowstone fire management policy was dominated by the idea that fires were detrimental. It seemed obvious; fires obliterated trees and destroyed existing landscapes. If you were to have a national park whose trees and grasslands would stand in perpetuity, full of healthy wildlife, it wouldn’t do for it to be burned away.
Yellowstone fire management didn’t really coalesce until the arrival of the U.S. Cavalry. Indeed, Yellowstone’s fire history prior to 1900 is sketchy at best, although evidence of burns is apparent in the soil record. Before 1900, fire records were loose and spotty. Then, between 1900 and 1930, roughly 374 fires burned 11,670 acres.
From 1886 onto roughly 1916, when the National Park Service was created, the army tried suppressing fire in Yellowstone. It was their efforts that contributed to modern forest fighting tactics, according to Barker in Scorched Earth:
It was [Captain Moses] Harris and his successors at Yellowstone who developed the firefighting strategies and tactics that were used September 7  and are still used today. The army system called for coordinated fire prevention efforts, a series of fire lookouts, and lightning-quick response to fire outbreaks. Army ranger also introduced the idea of public campgrounds to control visitors’ campfires. The army’s early success in firefighting convinced a National Academy of Sciences panel in 1897 to recommend expanding the role of the federal government in preservation of public lands … But the soldiers’ example also convinced managers they could control fire by eliminating it from the forest (4).
Further, with the emergence of Gifford Pinchot (pictured above) as chief of both the Division of Forestry (1898-1904) and the subsequent U.S. Forest Service (1905-1910), fire became public enemy number one for progressive conservationists. Fires went against a “wise use” policy that valued trees for the lumber they could provide and the enjoyment taken in seeing them.
Fires were, in essence, seen as intruding upon the nation. They did not belong here; rather, they irrupted from some infernal plane to wreak havoc and bring destruction. They were an aberration. And at their worst in this early period—like in the 1910 Big Burn—they cost lives and livelihoods.
Fire, indeed, and firefighting was likened to warfare, and operated with an army-like precision; in 1935, the “10 a.m. policy” was instituted, mandating any fire be put out by 10 a.m. the day after it starts.
This idea persisted (in some ways, it still persists) until after World War II, when two important changes and one catastrophe occurred. Firefighting methods became more sophisticated through the use of airplanes and smokejumpers. In 1949, the Mann Gulch forest fire claimed the lives of 13 firefighters and smokejumpers. Concurrently, and in the aftermath of that fire, ecologists began advancing evidence that fires were an integral part of forest ecosystems and (as it were) provided numerous unique services.
Ecology of The Burn
What is meant when forest fires are said to be fulfilling an ecological purpose? In Yellowstone, it means a few things.
Fire, as a function in an ecosystem, acts broadly. It needs optimal conditions (high temperatures, low humidity), lots of fuel. Strong winds, which can be generated in part by the convection cycle of large conflagrations, can help spread fire by blowing around burning material and intense heat.
Some plants in Yellowstone National Park have adapted to fire. Lodgepole pines, for instance, evolved a type of cone that only deploys seeds in the event of a fire. These serotinous cones (serotiny is a specific adaptation where certain seed-bearing plants don’t spread seeds unless they’re subjected to an environmental trigger like fire or water) don’t activate until the resin coating them melts at 113 degrees Fahrenheit or more. Fires also clear away trees, opening the forest canopy and clearing litter for seedlings to thrive in. Indeed, without periodic fires, these pyriscent plants would be doomed.
Fires also act as a buffer against invasion of trees into grasslands.
Further, fire returns nutrients to the soil, which benefits plants whose root systems are often unaffected, having the ground for cover. Previously vegetation dense soils that are swept by fire more often than not rebound spectacularly. Fire can spur regeneration in sagebrush, willow, and aspen communities, especially in the latter since aspens can reproduce via subterranean suckers.
Increased vegetation growth and root proliferation can, in turn, curb erosion, as the soil is held together more tightly in a web of tendrils.
Of all the wildlife in Yellowstone, birds benefit the most when fires occur, since dead and burnt trees provide perfect places to build nests. Boreal owls don’t directly benefit from fires, since they prefer mature forest stands, but even the large 1988 Yellowstone fire didn’t devastate them or their preferred habitat.
While wildlife like ungulates and other mammals in Yellowstone doesn’t immediately benefit from fires the way plants do, they aren’t greatly affected by it either. Old ranges might be burnt, but they were never permanently uninhabitable. In the case of Yellowstone grizzly bears during the 1988 fire, they more frequently returned to burned sites to forage. Rodents are affected by the loss of vegetation cover—which proves to be a boon to birds of prey—but they can soon recoup their numbers.
In light of new theories regarding fire’s place in a forest ecosystem, Yellowstone fire management shifted from total suppression to permitting fires in select circumstances. Natural fires, such as those sparked by lightning, were allowed to burn for the most part, unless they impacted visitor infrastructure and safety. There were also prescribed burns, such as the one shown below.
Given that only an estimated two percent of Yellowstone National Park is considered “developed,” this left plenty of area to burn. Between 1972 and 1987, 235 fires burned roughly 33,000 acres, with lower activity between 1982 and 1987 due to wetter than average conditions.
In the midst of these good years, a new Yellowstone fire management policy was being drafted, which would allow for some natural fires to burn, some fires to be suppressed if they threatened people and structures, and prescribed burns.
If all had gone according to plan, this Yellowstone fire management plan would have gone into effect in late 1988.
Obviously, things did not go as planned.
The 1988 Yellowstone Fire And Its Aftermath (1989-1992)
Prior to the 1988 fires, the largest single fire in Yellowstone National Park was the 1931 Heart Lake sire, which measured a paltry 18,000 acres. The 1988 fires (50 fires burning a mosaic across Yellowstone) burned around 800,000 acres in Yellowstone National Park, all across the region, from June until September.
As to why 1988 was the year of fire in Yellowstone, there are several theories. In the first place, it was a dry year, horrendously dry in fact. And combine dryness with timber build-up and strong summer gusts, and according to Rothman in A Test of Adversity and Strength, you had a real problem:
During June, the park recorded only 20 percent of the average rainfall for the month; July reached 79 percent of the monthly average. Moisture content in Yellowstone fell precipitously. By the end of July, fuel moisture levels in plants and tree branches were at astonishing lows. In grasses and small branches, moisture levels had dropped to as low as 2-3 percent, well beneath the 15 percent that signaled danger. Dead trees were measured at 7 percent moisture. NPS records showed that when timber was between 8-12 percent moisture, lightning served as an effective ignition for fires that burned freely. Even worse, unusually high winds associated with the dry fronts passing through the region spread any flames widely, much more than would have occurred as a result of the dryness alone (189).
Another issue came from the fact that fires sparked by lightning in June were allowed to burn, after an inordinately wet spring instilled optimism in rangers and fire managers. By July, with fire acreage mounting, it became more or less an all-out war—by the end, 1988 had seared itself on the landscape of Yellowstone and the minds of its observers.
Remember that prior to 1900 Yellowstone’s fire history was sketchy, with no intensive records. In the aftermath of the 1988 fire, ecologists William Romme and Don Despain suggested that the total suppression strategy implemented in the 1880s onward delayed large fires that could have burned in historically dry years (1949, 1953, 1960, 1961). Further, the intensity of the 1988 Yellowstone fires matched a hypothetical fire that likely swept Yellowstone in the early to mid-1700s.
In addition, advances in fire science have pointed toward regular patterns in burning or “fire return intervals.” Shrub and grassland burns on average every 20-25 years while lodgepole pine forest burns roughly every 300 years.
In sum, the damages of the 1988 fire were likely a combination of hitherto unconnected circumstances.
Nonetheless, it’s fair to say there was a high degree of uncertainty surrounding Yellowstone fire management in the aftermath of the 1988 fires. After all, to the naked eye, Yellowstone was in shambles, large swaths of its backcountry torched. The drafted fire plan was more or less discarded. Then Yellowstone superintendent Robert Barbee was given the ignominious nickname “Barbee-Que Bob” for his perceived failure to contain the fire (Rothman 198). Indeed, there was fear another series of huge fires would break out in subsequent years, given all the dead trees left standing.
Evolution of Yellowstone Fire Management (1992-Present)
Said uncertainty gave way to diligent planning, with the implementation of a new Yellowstone fire management plan in 1992. The new policy called for closer monitoring of natural fires and removal of hazardous fuel material near Yellowstone’s developed areas. This plan has been revised twice, in 2004 and 2014.
Another important change came under the 2009 Federal Wildland and Fire Policy, which mandated (among other things) that fires could be managed on multiple fronts for multiple objectives. Fires could burn if they didn’t threaten developed areas or people’s lives—a far cry from the all out war waged on fire at the beginning of the century. Indeed, fires could be half-suppressed and half-monitored, depending on which way they burned.
In the meantime, since the 1988 fires, there hasn’t been a major outbreak on par with that conflagration. The last big fire complex in Yellowstone burned in 2003, torching almost 29,000 acres.
One of the big takeaways from Yellowstone’s fire history, especially after the 1988 fire, was that fire didn’t demand a single strategy. Pure approaches like total suppression and “let it burn” were insufficient—neither did what people wanted them to do. Figures such as fire historian Stephen J. Pyne, according to Barker, are desirous of more mixed fire strategies, which include both natural and prescribed burns as well as fuel thinning (244). The 2015 Spruce Fire (shown above) provides a present day example of Yellowstone’s new fire management policy.
Further, evidence of fire’s role in Yellowstone was already manifesting on a grand scale, with mosaic vistas of char giving way to myriad pine seedlings. With every passing year, there is less and less evidence of a big burn, as dead trees topple and are obscured by thriving stands of lodgepole pine. For all intents and purpose, the 1988 fires have faded into history—unless you know where to look. And how.
If the fire return interval for a lodgepole pine forest holds, we can expect the next major fire in Yellowstone to happen around 2288. Of course, a grand fire might come sooner, with marked changes in climate predicted in the next century onward. From Scorched Earth:
Scientists who have analyzed charcoal deposits in Yellowstone found that the frequency of forest fires in the park is correlated to the level of drought during July for the last 170,000 years. But Despain said the changing climate conditions of the present might make looking back an unreliable predictor of the future (246).
Even with a wealth of history, Yellowstone fire management is still very much in development. After all, you can’t optimize fire to burn better. Perhaps the biggest lesson to be heeded in determining the future of Yellowstone fire management is that fire isn’t some invading force. It belongs in Yellowstone National Park.