1988 Fires Changed Yellowstone Fire Policy

The summer of 1988 was a dry one in Yellowstone National Park. In July, the park had the least amount of precipitation on record, and the trees and brush, normally wet enough not to ignite, suffered fires from lightning and human carelessness. More than 150,000 acres were burned on the worst day, 20 August 1988. Originally over 793,000 acres accounting for 36 percent of the park, were estimated as burned in 50 different fires. More recent and accurate GIS mapping has increased this to 1.1 million acres which is almost half of the park. Almost one million acres of Wyoming and Montana burned in and around the park. Air pollution from the fires affected areas as far away as the east coast and Amarillo, Texas.

Existing policies in Yellowstone were to allow fires to burn out their natural course, since many plant species cope well with fire and Yellowstone is a natural habitat. In 1988, however, people feared for their lives and property, so the firefighters were called in. Wildlife took the hardest hit in casualties; 345 elk, 36 deer, 12 moose, 6 black bears, and 9 bison were killed. Areas of the park had to be closed to visitors due to safety concerns. Damage to cabins and other property was estimated at $3 million dollars.Twenty-five thousand firefighters and soldiers from all over the country poured in to fight what would be called the “summer of fire”. $120 million dollars were spent to fight the fires, before the rain and snow of September halted the flames.

Americans were reminded of how fragile the ecosystem is, and how small an area of the great North American forests had been preserved. By March of 1992 a new fire policy was put into place for Yellowstone National Forest as a result of the 1988 fires.

The 1992 Yellowstone National Park Wildland Fire Management Plan prescribes prevention, control, and containment of wildfires in the park. It divides the park into three fire management zones: the suppression zone, the conditional zone, and the prescribed natural fire zone. In the suppression zone, all fires are put out. This zone includes all the developed and recreational areas, including Old Faithful, all four entrances, and several ranger stations. In the conditional zone, naturally caused fires are allowed to burn to a prescribed extent and their progress is monitored. It includes backcountry cabins, smaller campgrounds, and telephone equipment. The prescribed natural fire zone is also allowed to have natural fires, which must be monitored, but more area is allowed to burn than in the conditional zone. This zone includes backcountry cabins, picnic sites, and telephone equipment as well. In both conditional and prescribed natural fire zones, humanly caused fires are declared wildfires and are not allowed to continue.

In 2004, the 1992 Wildland Fire Management Plan was updated. The update includes provisions for prescribed fires to be ignited by forest rangers to reduce dry wood and for research purposes. Safety zones are also prescribed, where dried brush is to be removed to reduce fire hazards. Such zones are to be cleared around cabins and developed areas. The update also divides the park into 7 fire management units, where burned and unburned areas are monitored and reported.

Yellowstone Park fire management has come a long way since fires were simply considered a natural force of nature that humankind did not need to do anything about. With a constantly evolving policy to keep fires from causing loss of property, lives, and wildlife, Yellowstone is likely to be safe from catastrophic fires well into the future.

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