The 1988 Yellowstone fires are still, without succumbing to overstatement, the most significant event to ever happen to the Park.
Burning almost 800,000 acres, effectively obliterating the “old” Yellowstone, the one that had been built up since its establishment in 1872—tellingly, the 1988 fires threatened to destroy the Old Faithful Inn, one of the Park’s emblems—these fires generated a great deal of controversy, some of which still lingers.
Concurrently with the firestorm that nearly threatened Old Faithful, a political firestorm erupted that summer, centered on the decisions that went into Yellowstone fire management that summer and earlier. It examined the ramifications and perils of trying to control fire.
In Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America, Rocky Barker addresses these firestorms and others. Indeed, he offers ways in which these fires changed America.
Reading Scorched Earth, you will learn a great deal about the 1988 fires, how the incident brought together climatic contingency and prevailing notions of what fires mean in a national park and how it reflected and subsequently shaped Yellowstone fire management.
In addition, Barker’s book ties together a cast of historical characters whose connections are not immediately obvious. He discusses General Philip Sherdian’s engrossing interest in the Yellowstone area and how that contributed to the arrival of the U.S. Cavalry in the 1880s. He outlines the philosophical sparring of Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, for instance, and talks about the influence of John Wesley Powell on Western environmental thought. He writes about the evolution of agencies like the U.S. Forest Service in the 20th century and changing currents in conservation thought—including Aldo Leopold’s land ethic and his son Aldo Starker Leopold’s 1964 report on wildlife management in national parks.
Seemingly, none of these figures had any stake or involvement in the 1988 Yellowstone fires. So why do they warrant mention?
Barker makes constellations out of these seemingly disparate, distant stars, threading a ribbon of fire through their stories, ending with the 1988 Yellowstone fires and their aftermath.
As for the crux of Scorched Earth, Barker offers a pretty lucid takeaway from both the 1988 Yellowstone fires and fire control’s broader history, at the end of (the appropriately named) “Moment of Truth” chapter:
All the spin in the world couldn’t make people love fire any more than they could love a tornado, a flood, a hurricane, or a volcano eruption. But they could learn to place it in the realistic concept of their lives on earth. The Yellowstone fires were, for many, the beginning of this lesson at the end of the twentieth century. They reframed the context in which ecosystem or landscape management was debated. Now it was no longer viewed as simply a way to keep human being as much as possible from disturbing wilderness or wildlife habitat. The fundamental dividing line between preservation and use in the environmental paradigm, in place since the days of Muir and Pinchot and Hetch Hetchy, was broken. Man and nature, civilization and wilderness, could not be separated neatly (223).
The story of the 1988 Yellowstone fires has been cast a few ways. Some offered the incident as a stunning indictment of the National Park Service—for allowing fire to squander Yellowstone’s treasures, for nearly letting the Old Faithful Inn burn. Some saw the 1988 fires as the failure of natural burn policy. Others saw the 1988 fires as the failure of total suppression. Some saw the fires as inevitable. Some thought it could have been prevented.
Regardless of where you stand, if you want a probing examination of the 1988 fires and Yellowstone’s environmental history, as well as a primer of evolving environmental thought, Scorched Earth is a great place to start.