Wildland Fire History — The Endless Summer of ’88 at Yellowstone: Madness, Macintoshes, and Mail

Jack de Golia, Park Ranger, Yellowstone National Park

Originally published Spring 1989 in Interpretation. Please note that many of the writers whose articles are included in this publication have since moved to new / different positions, retired, or passed on.

Fires can be fun: they’re a break from the routine, everyone gets swept up in the emergency effort, and lots of strangers arrive to help. But, unlike other project fires I’ve been to, the one at Yellowstone never ended.

Oh, the flames died down in September and the snows of November finally snuffed the last of them out (we think). But the long hours and too much work kept up. The demand for information from teachers and from children was immediate. Josh and his cousin (I forget the cousin’s name) from Pennsylvania sent us “eggcorns” to plant. I wrote Josh a thank you note that told him about the problem of exotic plants. A class of fifth graders, also in Pennsylvania, has written a play about fire’s beneficial role in nature and is sponsoring an art contest.

Lots of art work has already come. Kids from all over wanted to help the fire fighters by showing they were thinking of them. Our artist–naturalist Dave Cowan sponsored an art contest called “Imagine Yellowstone.” While broader in theme than the fires, many students chose to send in works about them. But, the main work came from teachers and students doing reports. As I write this, that work load has shifted into high gear. By October our writer–in–residence, Paul Schullery, prepared a “primer” on the fires. To spread the word to the educational community we went to the network we had established during the development of our environmental education curriculum, Expedition: Yellowstone.

About a thousand teachers wrote to us for information about the curriculum. So we wrote to them telling them about the primer. Then, we wrote to the science coordinators in the fifty state departments of education (more when you add Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands). These are the officials in each education department who oversee science instruction. They have a national organization, based in Virginia.

Between direct mailings to the coordinators and to their association, we tapped this valuable link to teachers. Generally, each science coordinator has something to do with the education department’s statewide teacher newsletter. So, we asked them to pass the word that the National Park Service had its side of the story to tell.

In addition, we contacted two major national teacher magazines: Science and Children and Instructor. Early this winter articles appeared in both about our offer of fire information and about Expedition: Yellowstone. (In hindsight, a wiser course would have been to write articles for these magazines instead of offering to mail information.) Since statewide newsletters and these magazines have carried the news to teachers everywhere, they’ve all been writing in! By mid–March the list had grown to 2300 names from every state in the Union, three Canadian provinces, Scotland, Australia, and Poland.

The value of all of this computer typing will come as more information is released, as research efforts learn more about the fires: we now have a first–class mailing list of teachers interested in Yellowstone and the fires. The primer has been replaced by a special supplement to the park newspaper and a series of new reports. Between my flying fingers and Yellowstone’s Communication Center night shift, we’re getting envelopes stuffed and labels made. It’s a regular cottage industry.

We have hopes of adding to Expedition: Yellowstone. It was published in a binder format so that we could add chapters. Originally, we envisioned a chapter on winter and another on wolves. But, now fire looms as a new addition. When it will take form depends on when the mail bag lightens up. Meantime, during our spring Expedition Yellowstone camps, the environmental education staff will be taking classes of kids into burn areas to do plant transects and observations.

Our mailing list will also come in handy when we begin promoting the Children’s Fire Trail. During the height of the fires last summer, the park began to receive letters from teachers and school children wanting to help the park in its recovery efforts. Some wanted to send seeds and trees; others sent small cash donations to pay for planting trees. We needed to find some way to enable young people to do something for Yellowstone, but something appropriate.

Lee Davis, Yellowstone’s Chief of Concessions, came up with an idea for a Children’s Fire Trail. The trail would be self–guiding with exhibits on fire ecology and places where groups could gather for activities. The trail would be dedicated to school children and would be a place where they could watch the process of post–fire succession. A companion publication would tell the story of fire ecology through fictional characters.

A fund raising prospectus for the Fire Trail was printed and the trail has been described in several national publications including The Wall Street Journal. The Fire Trail has been one outgrowth of the fires that everyone agrees will be positive.

Interest in the fires remains high among children and teachers. And, in my weary brain, the fires still burn! Anyone have an opening at an underwater park??

Interpretation [was] a combined effort of the Washington Division of Interpretation and the Regional Chiefs of Interpretation. The publication [was] edited and designed by the staff of the Interpretive Design Center at Harpers Ferry:

General Editor: Julia Holmaas
Technical Editor: J. Scott Harmon
Designer: Phillip Musselwhite
Contributing Editors:
Joe Zarki: Yellowstone National Park
Ginny Cowan: Yellowstone National Park

Last updated: January 6, 2017