As a park ranger, I often get asked “how much of the park was destroyed by the 1988 fires?” One of the best places to answer that question is between Canyon Village and Norris Junction. It is an area commonly referred to as the “Blowdown.” But here, the response to fire started well before 1988.
On July 8, 1984 a mysterious storm moved across the Yellowstone plateau. A 22 mile swath of forest was flattened; a possible wind shear had laid the trees down like they were blades of grass
As the trees started to decay, small lodgepole pines began to sprout between the downed trees. Just over 4 years later, in September 1988, the powerful North Fork Fire burned through the area and reduced the decaying forest to ashes.
This area looked so devastated, one news outlet shot footage of the blackened ground here and informed the country that, “this is all that is left of Yellowstone Park.”
Within a year, a boardwalk was built to explain why this area looked so different. An interpretive sign that was placed here read, “After two successive deforestations this site can still reseed with grasses and shrubs, but it may remain a meadow for decades.” Soon, we would all realize how resilient nature is.
In many of the burnt areas, naturally reseeded lodgepole pines began to appear within the first year or two; they often blanketed the forest with millions of seedlings. Here at the Blowdown, only a few seedlings were growing.
In most lodgepole forests, the young trees are so close together that there is competition for sun and space; the typical tree in those situations grows tall, thin and straight. Here, since the trees are spaced farther apart they are thicker and have retained their lower branches.
During the fires of 1988, I worked at the Wolf Lake Fire Camp, which was just down the road. I remember stopping here and wondering what the future held for Yellowstone. Over the last couple of decades, this magnificent wilderness has continued to show us that Yellowstone was changed, but was not destroyed.