1988 Fire at Yellowstone National Park Term Paper

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1988 Fire at Yellow Stone National Park. This paper discuses the events that took place during the 1988 Fire at Yellowstone National Park that took out 1.2 million acres.

1988 Fire at Yellow Stone National Park

Fires are dangerous and deadly but just how far they can go that can be seen with the example of the 1988 fire at the Yellow Stone National Park. Yellowstone National Park is located in the states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming is the first and oldest national park in the world. It covers 8,983.210 km2 (2,219,790.71 acres) mostly in the northwest corner of Wyoming. Yellowstone is home of the brown bear (sometimes called "grizzly bears") and wolf, and free-ranging herds of bison and elk. It is the core of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the largest intact Temperate Zone ecosystems remaining on the planet. The park was named for the yellow rocks seen in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone a deep gash in the Yellowstone Plateau that was formed by floods during previous ice ages and by river erosion from the Yellowstone River.

Yellowstone National Park has been famous for its geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, and steaming pools. In 1988, however, Yellowstone also became known for the fires that ravaged its forests. The reason for the 1988 fire at the Yellow Stone National Park was climactic. In Yellowstone National Park, the fire season usually lasts from June to early September. In 1988, several factors led to an abnormal fire season. During June of that year, there was little rain and extremely high temperatures and winds. Yellowstone National Park was suffering from severe drought conditions. The drought left Yellowstone more vulnerable to fires than usual. Several fires were started by lightning and several by human activities. By July 21, many thousands of acres had burned. The Yellowstone National Park fires of 1988 were the largest series of fires in the northern Rockies during the last 50 years. The fires of 1988 led to an intense public debate regarding the National Park Service's fuel management policy. This policy stated that fires started by natural causes should be allowed to burn to their natural conclusion. By the 1940s, ecologists recognized that fire was a primary agent of change in many ecosystems, including the arid mountainous western United States. In the 1950s and 1960s, national parks and forests began to experiment with controlled burns, and by the 1970s Yellowstone and other parks had instituted a natural fire management plan to allow the process of lightning-caused fire to continue influencing wild land succession.

Most of the plants that are found in Yellowstone are fire-adapted. A few lodgepole pines (Pinus contorta), which make up nearly 80% of the park's extensive forests, have cones that are serotinous sealed by resin until the intense heat of fire cracks the bonds and releases the seeds inside. Fires may stimulate regeneration of sagebrush, aspen, and willows, but the interactions between these plants and fire is complicated by other influences such as grazing levels and climate. Though aboveground parts of grasses and forbs are consumed by flames, the belowground root systems typically remain unharmed, and for a few years after fire these plants commonly increase in productivity.

The fire in 1988 was radically different than the previous ones the reason being in April and May, Yellowstone received higher-than normal rainfall. But by June, the greater Yellowstone area was experiencing a severe drought. Forest fuels grew progressively drier, and the early summer thunderstorms produced lightning without rain. The fire season began, but still without hint of the record season to come. Eleven of 20 early-season fires went out by themselves, and the rest were being monitored in accordance with the existing fire management plan. The summer of 1988 saw little or no rain the whole season and turned out to be the driest in the park's recorded history. By July 15, only 8,500 acres had burned in the entire greater Yellowstone area. Still, due to continued dry conditions, on July 21 by which time fire activity had become noticeable to park visitors and to the national media the decision was made to suppress all fires. But within a week, fires within the park alone encompassed more nearly 99,000 acres, and by the end of the month, dry fuels and high winds combined to make the larger fires nearly uncontrollable. National news reporters poured into Yellowstone National Park, as did firefighters from around the country, bolstered by military recruits. On the worst single day, August 20, 1988, tremendous winds pushed fire across more than 150,000 acres. All through August and early September, some park roads and facilities were closed to the public, and residents of nearby towns outside the park feared for their property and their lives. Yellowstone's fire management policy was the topic of heated debate, from the restaurants of park border towns to the halls of Congress. By September 11, 1988, the first snows of autumn had dampened the fires, as the nation's largest fire-fighting effort could not. The imminent danger to life and property was over, and firefighters were gradually sent home, although the last of the smoldering flames were not extinguished until November. Staff in Yellowstone National Park went to work surveying the impacts of the fires on wildlife, plants, historic structures, trails, and more and answering the demands for information, explanation, and a new fire management policy. (Tom Meersman; Staff Writer, Landmarks in Yellowstone National Park's History: Minneapolis Star Tribune, 10-26-1997, PP 14G)

The summer of 1988 was a tragic one for Yellowstone there were a total of 248 fires in greater Yellowstone; 50 of those were in Yellowstone National Park. Despite widespread misconceptions that all fires were initially allowed to burn, only 31 of the total were; 28 of these began inside the park. In the end, 7 major fires were responsible for more than 95% of the burned acreage. Five of those fires were ignited outside the park, and 3 of them were human-caused fires that firefighters attempted to control from the beginning. More than 25,000 firefighters, as many as 9000 at one time, attacked Yellowstone fires in 1988, at a total cost of about $120 million. Thankfully, the fires killed no park visitors and no nearby residents. Outside the park, two firefighters were killed, one by a falling tree and one while piloting a plane transporting other personnel. (Tom Meersman; Staff Writer, Landmarks in Yellowstone National Park's History: Minneapolis Star Tribune, 10-26-1997, PP 14G)

This 1988 fire scorched, about 1.2 million acres and 793,000 (about 36%) of the park's 2,221,800 acres were burned. Sixty-seven structures were destroyed, including 18 cabins used by employees and guests and one backcountry patrol cabin in Yellowstone. Estimated property damage totaled more than $3 million. About 665 miles of hand-cut fireline and 137 miles of bulldozer lines, including 32 miles in the park, needed some rehabilitation, along with the remnants of fire camps and helicopter-landing spots. Surveys found that 345 dead elk (of an estimated 40,000-50,000), 36 deer, 12 moose, 6 black bears, and 9 bison died in greater Yellowstone as a direct result of the fires; 2 radio-collared grizzly bears were missing and were presumed to have been killed. Most of the animals that died were trapped as fire quickly swept down two drainages, and were discovered when biologists subsequently observed scavenging grizzlies, coyotes, and birds feeding on the carcasses. A few small fish-kills occurred as a result of either heated water or dropping fire retardant on the streams. A study revealed that less than 1% of soils were heated enough to burn below ground plant seeds and roots. In order to restore all the damaged facilities and to study the long-term ecological, social, and economic effects of the Yellowstone fires the U.S. Congress provided funds. However the tourist season was cut prematurely short by the fires and associated fire fighting activity, the feared abandonment of regional visitors failed to materialize in 1989. The effects on many plants and animals are still being studied, although in the short-term, most wildlife populations showed no effect or rebounded quickly from the fiery summer. In the several years following 1988, ample precipitation combined with the short-term effects of ash and nutrient influx to make for spectacular displays of wildflowers in burned areas. And, where serotinous lodgepole pines were burned, seed densities ranged from 50,000 to 1 million per acre, beginning a new cycle of forest growth under the blackened canopy above. (Hanson, Brooks, Atmospheres: Not so fired up., Science, 03-24-2000)

After this massive wildfire ended national parks and forests all across the nation suspended and updated their fire management plans, assisted by the ecological assessment of a panel of independent scientists and by revised national fire management policies. In 1992, Yellowstone National Park again had a wildland fire management plan, but with stricter guidelines under which naturally occurring fires may be allowed to burn.

Although unprecedented in the 125-year history of the park, the scientists reviewing the effects of the 1988…[continue]

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