“The inn will be closing at noon today.” Bellhops knocked on doors of the Old Faithful Inn delivering that message on the morning of Sept. 7, 1988.
That afternoon the North Fork fire roared into to Old Faithful Village, turning the sky black with an eerie red glow. The firestorm blew burning embers over the geyser basin. The barren, mineral-coated ground surrounding the famous geyser served as a safety zone for park workers and journalists as did paved parking lots. There was nothing there to burn.
An amazing contingent of professional firefighters protected the historic inn, and no injuries were reported. But there was no stopping the wildfire in a forest as dry as old lumber with high winds propelling flames forward.
Sept. 7 was the last worst fire day in the biggest fire year since Yellowstone became the world’s first national park in 1872.
Watching the firestorm overrun the village that afternoon from a small car parked in the big lot was more fascinating than frightening. The summer of 1988 had already defied all expectations of how wildfires would behave and what firefighters could do to stop them.
Firefighters were exhausted from long days and nights on high-altitude fire lines. The battle had claimed the life of an air plane pilot. Park workers were hoarse from breathing smoke since mid-July. Vacations were disrupted by evacuations, blocked roads and closed lodging. People who lived or worked in neighboring communities feared for their lives and their property.
A longstanding federal wildland fire policy of allowing lightning-caused fires to burn under certain conditions had been described, first by the National Park Service, then by journalists as “let it burn.” People across the nation were outraged that the government was letting Yellowstone burn.
The most destructive 1988 fire, the North Fork, was started by people gathering wood in the Targhee National Forest of Idaho just outside the park boundary. It wasn’t allowed to burn, yet defied every strategy in the wildland firefighting arsenal.
When the first snow fell in the second week of September 1988, the conflagrations ended, although fires smoldered into October. Relief was mixed with worry and despair that Yellowstone was destroyed, that no one would want to see a burned park.
Time proved the pessimists wrong; even places where fire burned the hottest came back to life.
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In the spring of 1989, then-President George H.W. Bush visited the park to see grass and pine seedlings sprouting. Some cones produced by lodge pole pines — the dominant tree species in much of Yellowstone — only open to release their seeds when heated by fire. The fires of 1988 replanted the forests they burned.
The summer after the fires brought a riot of wildflowers in brilliant contrast to charred timber and blackened ground. Yellowstone horizons turned purple with fireweed blooming profusely where the ground had been scorched months earlier.
Visits to Yellowstone totaled 2.57 million in 1987, dropped to 2.18 million in fiery 1988 and rebounded to 2.6 million in 1989.
Hundreds of scientists flocked to the park in 1989. The fires of 1988 sparked 30 years of scientific inquiry into fire behavior, fire management, the impact of fire on wildlife, vegetation, ecosystems and other topics. That research continues. The 14th Biennial Scientific Conference on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is scheduled to include several presentations related to studies of the 1988 fires when it convenes Sept. 11-14 in Big Sky.
In the years after the big fires, federal land management agencies reviewed and rewrote fire management policies. The new policies still permit some lightning-caused fires to burn with careful monitoring under certain conditions. The policies recognize that fire is part of nature in Northern Rockies forests. Revised policies also mandated better coordination between agencies.
Although the focus of fiery 1988 was on Yellowstone Park, Montana was dry all over and many wildfires burned across our state. In the 2.2 million acres of Yellowstone and 10 million acres of adjoining national forests, about 1.4 million acres burned, according to aerial surveys.
Pine trees burned in 1988 still stand as reminders of nature’s power and resilience. Most of those 30-year-old standing dead trunks now are surrounded by green trees that sprouted since 1988.
The biggest change is the impact of visitors. Yellowstone first logged 3 million visits in 1994 and topped 4 million visits in 2015. Yellowstone’s greatest challenges today are people — the bigger crowds, the traffic and the conflicts about how to protect and preserve the spectacular park beloved by people around the world.
People who love Yellowstone must advocate for it. The park needs resources to maintain public safety when wild fires break out and when bear jams occur. Those of us who value the park for its wildlife and unique landscapes must partner with those who value its economic impact. Together, Yellowstone fans can ensure that visitors will still enjoy the park we know 40, 50 and 60 years after its summer of fire.