Today was the first day of breathing smoke from the Colorado fires. My guess -the source is the High Park fire about 220 miles from here (Casper, Wyoming), now estimated at over 87,000 acres. The smoke gives the sky an eerie yellow cast.
I remember 1988, my first year in Wyoming, standing on a high-ish ridge in the Bighorn Mountains and seeing tiny flakes of ash float up from below. I called into the local ranger station to report the smoke which I thought must be from an as-of-yet-unkown fire in the valley below me. The ranger said they would double check on that, but the smoke from the Yellowstone fires had just reached us, and the ash I was seeing was probably from Yellowstone National Park (YNP).
Visible ash over one hundred miles from the fires.
I was new to the West, and this was a surprise. One of the things I immediately loved about Wyoming was the ample opportunity to experience 180 degree, horizon to horizon views. A famous quote to come out of the westward pioneer journals was the exclamation, “It’s all earth and sky!” an unexpected experience for many eastern, hardwood forest born pioneers. Apparently, the vast, open expanses and ‘rarified’ air is also quite good at carrying smoke and ash many hundreds of miles.
The Yellowstone fires of 1988 were national headlines for all of that summer. Until 1972, YNP had a fire suppression philosophy, but as understanding of wildland systems grew, the belief that fire is a natural process important to the health of an ecosystem took shape, and a hands-off approach was adopted. The management philosophy by 1988 was to not interfere with natural geological and ecological processes, lightning induced fire included.
The fires of early summer 1988 in the park were allowed to burn as policy provided, however, by the end of July the writing was on the wall and an extreme fire season was underway. At that time fire suppression was started, but it was too late. Within a week the fires had grown at an unprecedented rate. In August, fires engulfed 150,ooo acres in a single 24 hour period.
The policy to let fires burn became controversial. This was our first National Park after all, should we just stand by and watch it burn? Some headlines reported the Park was being ‘destroyed’ and would never recover.
In the end, the fires didn’t completely stop until the fall snows put them out. The burned YNP areas were estimated at over 750,000 acres; most of that coniferous forest.
The dramatic fires of 1988 prompted a rush of research into wildfires, wildfire history, effects of fire on forest ecosystems, and management related to wildlife and human activity in forested public lands. Through tree ring data, scientists learned that lightning caused fires in these types of forests are common, and the majority cover a relatively small area and go out by themselves.
However, the data also revealed that combined factors such as drought and a build up of fuels (in this case woody vegetation) can create conditions for extreme wildfire episodes such as the YNP fires of 1988- and this summer in Colorado. Of course the major difference between the two is that the Yellowstone fires occurred in a National Park managed for ‘wildness,’ not in an area where thousands of people have private property and permanent homes.
Even though I understand the ‘naturalness’ of forest and wildland fires, I have also experienced the sense of loss one feels when beautiful coniferous forests go up in flames. I have also experienced the sense of awe at the sheer, primal power of those fires.
One thing I have not experienced, however, is losing all my material possessions to a wildfire, as many have experienced in Colorado and my home town of Casper/Mills these last few weeks. My heart and prayers go out for you.
Surprises and Lessons from the 1988 Yellowstone Fires – with photos
National Park Service report on the fires of 1988