Fire is not only one of the most powerful processes in play on the Yellowstone Plateau, but one of the most important. Everywhere you look, you see evidence of past wildfires.
In 1972, after 100 years of suppressing fire, Yellowstone adopted a natural burn policy. Fires that start naturally, through lightning, can be allowed to burn. All non prescribed human caused fire would continue to be fought.
Today, wildfire experts monitor every fire. They take into account where the fire started, what the weather has been like, and what the forecast is for the near future. Is the fire close to a historical structure, or a gateway community? Then and only then do they make a decision regarding an individual fire.
In 1988, 793,880 acres or 1/3 of Yellowstone was involved in fire. The park experienced over fifty wildfires. Researchers believe these large wildfires occur every 200 years or so. Yellowstone averages 22 wildfires a year.
In most years, fires that are allowed to burn put themselves out after burning less than an acre.
One of the most important aspects of fire in Yellowstone is the relationship fire has with the lodgepole pine tree. Eight out of every ten trees in the park are lodgepoles. Yellowstone’s recent volcanic past, geologically speaking, left the plateau with a thin layer of silica rich topsoil. Since lodgepole pines have relatively shallow root systems they dominate here.
This special pine tree has developed two different cones; one that opens normally and one, a serotinous or heat loving cone that opens only after exposure to heat. A fire comes along and pop, the lodgepole reseeds itself.
There was not one tree planted by humans after the 1988 fires. In 1989, some areas had over 1 million logdepole seedlings per acre.
On your next visit to Yellowstone, walk into a young lodgepole pine stand and experience a natural forest that was born with fire.