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1988 Yellowstone fires burned a lot of land, but also brought intense scrutiny

From the Complete coverage: The 1988 Yellowstone fires series
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1988 Yellowstone fires burned a lot of land, but also brought intense scrutiny
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The report on Aug. 21, 1910 was dire.

"Wallace, Idaho, is doomed and at a late hour tonight the whole town was on fire," read a news report in the Billings Gazette.

It was one dispatch of a massive wildfire known by names like the "Great Burn," the "Big Burn" and the "Great Fire of 1910." Around 3 million acres burned across Idaho, Washington and Montana.

Seventy-eight years later to the day, reports of another major fire splashed across the front page of the Gazette.

Black Saturday front page

The front page of the Billings Gazette on Aug. 21, the day after the infamous "Black Saturday."

This time, the news stories described what came to be known as "Black Saturday," when smoke blotted out the sun as the 1988 Yellowstone fires made their biggest acreage gains.

The events are two of the most significant in U.S. wildfire history. The 1910 fire gained notoriety for its acreage.

The 1988 Yellowstone fires were large — some 1.5 million acres burned — but its fame was also due the importance of the park. And it drew public focus on National Parks Service officials, who in the decades prior had developed a more modern fire management program.

The result was a media-fueled spectacle, as historian Hal K. Rothman wrote in a report for the National Parks Service.

"The symbolic power — the world's first national park in flames as seemingly ineffective firefighters and administrators responded with little success — provided powerful ammunition for outright assaults on the NPS and its programs," he wrote.

The burning of roughly a third of Yellowstone National Park in 1988 was a new occurrence within its borders. The largest previous natural wildfire in the park's history came in 1931, when 18,000 acres burned at Heart Lake.

In terms of U.S. history, the Yellowstone fires were big, but certainly not the biggest.

Burned into history

The more forested, more sparsely populated western and midwestern United States of the 1800s burned a lot.

The Great Midwest Wildfires in 1871, which coincided with the Great Chicago Fire, were the deadliest in the country's history. The worst was around Peshtigo, Wisconsin, where some 1,500 people died.

Around 3.7 million acres burned that fall in Wisconsin and Michigan, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center.

Around 3 million acres burned in South Carolina during wildfires of 1898. In the West, 1.5 million Oregon acres burned in 1845.

The fires of 1910 saw the U.S. Forest Service take over much of the wildland firefighting from the U.S. Army, according to Rothman's report. For half of the 20th century, the federal fire policy was one of aggressive suppression.

Wallace, Idaho after Great Fire of 1910

The Great Fire of 1910 burned around 3 million acres in Idaho, Washington and Montana. This photo shows Wallace, Idaho, where a large portion of the town was burned.

Tens of millions of U.S. acres burned annually until about 1950, after which the annual amount was around 5 million acres or fewer, according to the NICC.

California fires, known as the Siege of '87, burned 640,000 acres in 1987. The following year, the Yellowstone fires made its own entry into the annals of U.S. history.

After Yellowstone

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Rothman wrote that the Yellowstone fires brought intense political and media attention to fire management. The park's superintendent at the time, Bob Barbee, hoped for a media distraction.

"I kept waiting for (now-former Libyan leader Muammar) Gaddafi or somebody to do something outrageous, because we were the only game in town all summer long," Barbee told Rothman.

Bob Barbee

Former Yellowstone superintendent Bob Barbee stands at Mammoth Hot Springs in September 1988.

As part of revised fire management policies created throughout the 1990s, federal agencies more than doubled their prescribed burning acreage to more than 2.2 million, according to Rothman.

Large fires continued to strike in the new millennium outside of the prescribed sort. The Taylor Complex in Alaska was recorded by the NICC at 1.3 million acres. That contributed to a record 6.3 million acres for the state in 2004.

The East Amarillo Complex burned 907,000 Texas acres in 2006.

In 2007, the Murphy Complex was one of the largest in Idaho's history at 652,000 acres.

Idaho Wildfires

A dirt road leads south on the charred landscape of south central Idaho on the east flank of the Murphy Complex Fire in July 2007 west of Rogerson, Idaho.

Across the United States, the total amount of acres burned by wildfires grew past 10 million in 2015 — the first time since 1952, according to NICC data. The agency did note that data prior to 1983 is less reliable than more current figures.

Another 10 million acres burned nationwide in 2017, including 1 million across Montana during a brutally dry season.

In Yellowstone National Park in 2017, about one acre was lost to wildfire.

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