Fires of '88 Transcript

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Recovery from the 1988 Fires
by: Park Ranger George Heinz
Presented Live Online in September 2008

Ranger George: So, I’m about ready. How’s everybody doing this morning?

Audience: Great - Fine - It’s beautiful weather!

Ranger George: So, first of all, my name is George Heinz and I’m a naturalist or an interpretive ranger here in Yellowstone and I’ve been working here in the park, on and off, for about 30 years. I started working in the housekeeping department over there at the Old Faithful Inn when I was right out of high school and I’d come out here for the summers. Eventually, when I finished college, I decided I wanted to come back here and be a park ranger. I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and I’d just like to welcome everybody here and everybody at home.

We have people watching on the Internet. I work in the park’s Web Office and this is an experimental thing we’ve been doing. I’m the first ranger to have a program that’s been sent out live over the Internet. So it’s a pretty exciting thing. This is the last time we’re going to do it for this season. I’m going to do three programs in the next hour; one on fire and two on geology – different programs.

I’d just like to welcome everybody here to Yellowstone on behalf of myself and the National Park Service. I think we’re all pretty lucky to be here and to be able to visit a place like this. If you think about it, in 1872 on March first, when Yellowstone became the world’s first national park it’s pretty amazing that people back then had the foresight to think that this land is so special we need to start setting land aside before it gets taken up by private investments.

Yellowstone is a little different. Has anybody noticed any dead trees as you drove around the park? Maybe a burnt tree here and there? Maybe a lot of burnt trees? If you’re serious about understanding what a place like Yellowstone means, and what forest fires mean to a place like Yellowstone, we have to change the way we think. A forest fire here in Yellowstone National Park is different than a forest fire that you would have near your house. Yellowstone is 2.2 million acres or 3,472 square miles in size. That’s about the size of Rhode Island and Delaware put together. This is a great big place. There are no private homes here. There’s no private land here. It’s all just wilderness except for about 4 or 5 percent of the park, which is Old Faithful, Mammoth, and Canyon, the locations. The rest of the park is wilderness. So fires in a wilderness area, especially a place like Yellowstone, are different than the fires you have in your backyard.

Back in about 1772, that was Yellowstone’s 100th anniversary, we started looking at the park a little differently and a lot of rules were changed regarding the way we manage Yellowstone. We wanted Yellowstone to be a more natural park. We wanted the bears to be bears instead of hanging out along the road where everybody fed them. Today it’s a little harder to see a bear but when you see a bear, it’s a natural bear. It’s doing what bears do. It’s eating bear food so they’re more active at night. They’re more active at the cusp hours. They’re harder to find but when you find one it’s a natural bear.

We also went to a natural regulation when it goes to forest fires. So, when a fire starts here in Yellowstone there are fire experts that work out of Mammoth Hot Springs that look at every fire. We have two fires burning in the park right now. They’re both human-caused fires. One started maybe a month ago. It’s called the LeHardy Fire and it was started when trees fell across a power line on a windy day. That’s considered a human-caused fire. So that fire was fought originally and then it sort of burned out into the wilderness and it’s just sort of smoldering today. They’re monitoring it but there’s not a lot being done, it’s just going to put itself out.

Another fire just started a few days ago near Lake Shoshone. It was also a human-caused fire. Not sure how it started, just a little bitty fire. They sent in some helicopters and they did fight that fire. So if it’s a human-caused fire, trees falling on a power line, a cigarette, a campfire, we fight those fires immediately no matter where they’re at.

If it’s a natural fire that was started by lightening then that fire is looked at. Where did it start? Where is it apt to burn? Which direction is it going to go. Is it going to go toward a famous hotel like the Old Faithful Inn or is it just going to burn out into the wilderness? Is it going to burn toward a gateway community that sits on the outside of the park? What’s the weather been like? What’s the weather expected to be like? So they take into account all those things and then on each individual fire they make a decision whether to go fight that fire or just let it burn itself out.

Most of the time when a fire starts naturally here in Yellowstone, it burns less than an acre and burns itself out. Some years are different. And definitely 1988 was a different year. I did work in the Wolf Lake Fire Camp up around Canyon Village during the fires of 1988. That year, there were fifty-something fires in the park and the red here indicates what was involved in fire. I’m letting this camera look at this for a second and then I’m going to move it around and let everybody see it if you want. The red indicates what burned in 1988; 20 years ago this summer. That is 793,880 acres in red there. That’s 36% of Yellowstone. That does not mean that all of this burned. It just means that fires were in those areas; fires burned through.

We have several different kinds of fires. You have crown fires that burn across the forest and they’re usually in multi-layered forests, where you have middle-aged trees and older trees. Those middle-aged trees act as a ladder and they let that fire grow up into the top part of the forest. Those fires tend to burn everything. They burn the trees. They burn the forest floor and everything.

We also have fires that are called ground fires that just sort of creep along the forest floor. They burn up the litter layer and all the grasses and once you get rid of that litter layer, which is just the first few inches, what we see on the forest floor, it burns up all those old needles all the little wood particles and things like that and then seeds and roots of other plants are exposed. So right after a forest fire, if the fire has crept along the forest floor, maybe even by the end of that summer, but definitely by the next spring, three’s going to be little wild flowers, fireweed and other plants, clovers, plants that are nitrogen-fixers come in first.

Some plants considered nitrogen-fixers take the nitrogen in the atmosphere and they pull it in and they change the form of that nitrogen so other plants can use it. Not all plants have the ability to pull the nitrogen from the atmosphere. Ones that can are called nitrogen-fixers and they’re fixing nitrogen for the next forest. So they’re making sure the next forest can be healthy.

One of the big questions we get about forest fires is about all the dead wood. You know you’ve got wood everywhere. The dead wood you see on the forest floor in Yellowstone is very important. I had a professor in college who called the dead wood in a forest that falls and decays, he called that biological legacy. All the minerals it takes to grow a healthy forest, they go up and the tree has those minerals in it. Then when a forest fire comes along, those minerals either fall to the forest floor right then or over time as the tree decays.

So you’ll notice a lot of dead standing trees in the park. Eighty percent of our trees are lodgepole pines. They are two-needle pines. Eight out of every ten trees in the park, almost every tree you see if you turn around right here, is a lodgepole pine tree. There are a few spruce and firs down right along the river, where there’s a deeper soil, but these trees are dominating Yellowstone because Yellowstone is a volcano. A lot of trees don’t like the thin soil. They don’t like the silica in the soil. These trees don’t mind that. They don’t have much of a tap root so they grow in thin soil. Look at some of them where they’ve fallen over. Look at that root. It’s just more like a hand than like a regular tree that has a tap root that goes down. They just sort of grip the floor. They’re more apt to blow over when they’re alive because they are top-heavy. So once they burn, they can stand there for a long, long time before they fall over. But then once they fall over they start to decay, they build the next level of soil for the next forest that comes along.

One of the neatest things about these lodgepole pine trees, and you’ve probably seen them all over the park, you’ve seen areas that are just babies, like this hillside over here. Those trees were planted on September 7, 1988 as the fire came through. The neatest thing about lodgepole pines is that they have two different types of pinecones. They have a pinecone that opens regularly, like other trees, but they also have a serotinous pinecone. That pinecone the tree covers with a resin or a sap before it opens and it sits there on the tree. When a forest fire goes through a lodgepole pine forest, it heats that resin or that sap, the pinecone opens and it reseeds the forest floor.

One-third of Yellowstone burned in 1988. We didn’t plant a tree and some acres in Yellowstone today have a million trees per acre; some of the areas that burned in 1988. We didn’t plant any of them. Nature planted them. These trees also, here on top of the Yellowstone volcano, they’re not only the first tree to grow, they’re the last tree to grow because the soil is not good enough for spruce and firs to take over the forest. The tree only lives about 200 years so if a forest fire does not go through a lodgepole pine forest every 200 years or so the forest just starts dying off and then it’s much harder for nature to grow a new forest. In a lodgepole pine forest, they need to burn every so often to reseed the next generation.

One of the neatest things I read about forest fires while I was trying to develop this talk is that forest fires do not destroy the old forest, they prepare the land for the next forest. It’s a pretty cool way to look at it. We all want to come here. We all want to see lodgepole pine forests. We also want our kids to see lodgepole pine forests. So if you get a chance when you’re driving around Yellowstone stop at one of those areas that looks like it burned in the last 20 years or so and walk up into some of those baby forests. It’s pretty amazing. If you walk up in there and sit down for a minute and then just look around and act like maybe you’re an animal and you’re looking for a place to hide, or a place to eat, or a place to stay away from the people. Then ask yourself, was Yellowstone really destroyed or was it just changed. A young forest is every bit as natural as an old forest.

We humans, we just have that thing in our mind where we don’t like any fire because we’re afraid of our yards burning but in a place like Yellowstone, where we can let nature take its course, fires are every bit as natural as an old unburned forest and as a young forest is.

I’m going to do another talk here at about quarter after. It might be a little bit later depending on what Old Faithful is doing. Old Faithful is predicted at 11:19 plus or minus 10 minutes. So we’ll wait to see what Old Faithful is doing. My next talk, right around the eruption time, maybe right after, is called Geysers Galore and it’s a geology talk. It’s why we have geysers and why Yellowstone has them and you don’t have them in your back yard.

Thanks for visiting.

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