In 1988, almost 800,000 acres of Yellowstone National Park was burned in what was, at the time, one of the most significant wildland fires in American history.
Yellowstone is iconic, a symbol of the United States’ foresight in protecting wild places, animals and natural features, a land idealized throughout the world for its vast high-mountain wilderness, variety of wildlife and many geothermal features.
So when the park seemed to be turning to ashes in that unusual summer of fire, the entire world watched or read the news reports in awe, disbelief, fear and with a deep curiosity about what the future of the park might be. Yellowstone, it was feared, would be destroyed. The park would never be the same. A unique place symbolizing Americans’ ties to preserving wild places had been forever lost.
Jump forward to 2013, the 25th anniversary of those fires, and it’s evident that Yellowstone National Park continues to thrive, adapt and transform as it always has, and that part of that change has always included fire. The species of plants and animals that inhabit the park have long adapted to fire. Sure, there are changes, but Yellowstone is a dynamic landscape. Nothing stays the same. And fire will return, especially as summers grow ever longer, hotter, drier and contain more lightning strikes.
What seems evident is that although the Yellowstone fires of 1988 were dramatic, they were only a signal of what was to come. Last year in Montana alone, 1.1 million acres burned while the nation saw almost 8 million acres consumed by wildland fires. Firefighting costs for the Forest Service alone totaled about $1 billion. Already this year, almost 300,000 acres burned in just two of New Mexico’s 10 fires.
So wildland fire is here to stay on the Western landscape. More fires will burn in Yellowstone. But the burns are no longer viewed as catastrophic to the landscape. Different plants will sprout in the ashes, different trees and bushes will grow, but it is part of a natural cycle — one that people visiting Yellowstone National Park can see with their own eyes.