Posts Tagged ‘let burn policy’

Fires of Yellowstone – Life from the Ashes

June 2, 2010

YNP fire 1988 - used by permission

The summers of 1986 and ’87 were uncommonly wet. The following spring of 1988 sent more rain than usual into the Yellowstone ecosystem. Plants lapped it up and grew beautifully. Then came the drought. All that new plant growth slid to a halt and dried out. Plentiful dry fuels, hot temperatures, summer lightening storms set up a deadly combination.

The park service had adopted a “natural suppression” policy (a.k.a. “let burn”) in 1972. Overall, for the next several years it seemed to work. Fires were typically small and extinguished themselves when they ran out of fuel or other conditions prevented them from burning. Then, in 1988, 20 early fires had started and only 11 of them had put themselves out. By July, a few were still burning and had reached up to 99k acres within the park. The “natural suppression” policy was pushed aside in favor of intervention. Unfortunately, some of the fire fighting methods they used backfired. Prescribed burns intended to rob the uncontrolled blazes of fuel got out of control themselves and only exacerbated the problem.

The fires were getting out of hand and the worst was yet to come. Winds in August blew flames into 150,000 acres in a single day – the worst fire day of the season. Fire fighters were at a loss. It wasn’t until the snow started falling in September that they finally began to make headway. By the time it was over, more than 1.2 million acres were burned, 1/3 of it outside the park boundaries. Almost 800,000 acres, thirty-six percent of the park was charred.

We know that fire is a natural part of wildlife. It’s necessary, it’s beneficial (within reason, of course). The fire releases new life, especially in the trees. Seeds from tree species like spruce, lodgepole and others burst into germination. The soil was enriched with new nutrients all brought in the ash.

More recent (?) fire damage

Today, some 22 years later, the regrowth is nothing short of phenomenal.

22 y.o. growth after burn

Trees grow thick where once was just scorched earth. Intermingled are black and gray spikes – skeletons of the dead, ever-present reminders of what used to be there. Still, these are being slowly swallowed up in the green velvet of the new forests.

There are groves of young trees in some areas that are so thick as to make you wonder how on earth they can be thinned out enough to allow healthy growth of only a few. In some instances, forest service personnel will come in with chain saws when the trees are older and selectively thin them out, allowing the healthiest to grow properly. Other than that, I couldn’t say. Perhaps they do some of that on their own. These seem to have done well enough without a lot of help.

Not all stands are regrowing as quickly. One section of Douglas

This stand of Douglas Fir was almost completely consumed.

Fir was virtually wiped out and is still rather barren. Usually the thick bark of the Doug Fir protects it from fire. But these fires raged so incredibly hot that even these trees weren’t safe. Their regrowth has been painfully slow.

Interpretive Sign explaining damage to the forest.

There is no easy solution to the threat of wildfire. Man has interfered for so long the forest can no longer manage itself. As with so many things we have manipulated, we have likely gone so far that we have no option to turn it around. Our hands are in the mix. All we can do now is try not to make any more of a mess.

Source: National Park Service –