Wildland Fire History — Interpreting Fire In Grand Teton National Park

Linda Olson, South District Naturalist, Grand Teton 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.

In the last fifteen years, Grand Teton National Park has hosted six major wildfires:

  • 1974–Waterfalls Canyon Fire Ignited by lightning Burned 3500 acres Extinguished by snow five months later
  • 1981–Mystic Isle Fire Ignited by lightning Burned 2000 acres Extinguished when it reached lakeshore on one side and a minimal fire line on the other side a week later
  • 1985–Beaver Creek Fire Ignited by lightning Burned 1000 acres Extinguished by extensive firefighting efforts and rain two days later
  • 1987–Dave Adams Hill Fire Ignited by lightning Burned 2700 acres Extinguished by firefighters and weather
  • 1988–Hunter Fire Ignited by sparks from a power line that was knocked over by a tree Burned 5000 acres Extinguished by massive firefighting efforts
  • 1988–Huck Fire (Rockefeller Parkway) Ignited by sparks from a power line that was knocked over by a tree Burned over 10,000 acres in the Parkway Extinguished by snow three months later

The use of natural fire as a tool of resource management in national parks gained favor in the early 1970s. The fire management policy in Grand Teton National Park divides the park into three fire zones. The fires listed above occurred in different fire zones. Waterfalls Canyon and Dave Adams Hill began in the “prescribed natural fire management” zone. The Mystic Isle and Hunter fires were posing a threat to nearby buildings and park concessions, therefore they fell into the “decision” zone. The Beaver Creek and Huck fires were fought by fire fighters around the nation because they occurred in the “suppression” zone.

From the viewpoint of resource managers, researchers, and scientists, all of these fires have greatly enhanced the natural resources and the species diversity of Grand Teton National Park. In areas of extreme fuel loading due to years of fire suppression, resource managers still intend to use prescribed burning as a means of resource rejuvenation.

And what about the park visitors–those 2.5 million people who come each year to view and enjoy Grand Teton National Park? The 1974 Waterfalls Canyon Fire caused a lot of smoke and controversy because it was one of the first natural fires allowed to burn in a large western national park. Park naturalists provided visitors with information about the fire, but little interpretation of fire ecology. We found we had a lot ofbrushing up and planning to do. When the Mystic Isle Fire erupted in 1981, park interpreters stepped forward to connect resource managers and park visitors. Since that time, many different types of interpretive activities and services have been tried at Grand Teton to help visitors understand the role of natural fires in the ecosystem.

The following lists those that have had the most success.

During the Fire

  1. The Roadside Interpreter–Station interpreters in roadside turnouts near areas of heavy smoke and/or fire activity. Set up portable signs a hundred yards before the turnouts reading “Ranger on duty to talk about the fire.”
  2. Evening programs and other ranger–led activities–Have a fire slide show ready to go. Add the fire emphasis to other activities. Take advantage of the resource management momentum the fire gives you.
  3. Smoke Meetings–Be proactive. Schedule a meeting for the press, local residents, and visitors with flre bosses and resource managers. Display a caring attitude to diffuse controversy early and increase support for the flre.
  4. Spot Announcements–Use the public address system in the visitor center to give hourly announcements on the fire situation. Display fire maps and give short, impromptu talks about the fire.
  5. Exhibits–Have a simple and portable (but well done!) exhibit about fue ecology prepared and ready to display at visitor centers and ranger stations.
  6. Site bulletins and brochures–Have handouts available at all visitor contact points so the visitor can take them home and study them at leisure.

After the Fire

  1. Publish an article about the fire in the park newspaper.
  2. Continue to have brochures/site bulletins available to take home.
  3. Offer fire walks where visitors can see the renewing of the resource and explore burn areas.
  4. Continue slide shows and videos about the fire, stressing the resource management opportunities in the bum area.
  5. If possible, publish a self–guiding trail leaflet to guide people on their own in the bum area.
  6. Establish an active environmental education program with local schools to take classes through the bum area and teach the students about resource management. Consider a yearly visit from the same class as they progress through the various grade levels so that they can keep a record of changes and developments in the burn area over a period of several years.

The Future Fire

  1. Continue newspaper articles about the flre and fire management in your area.
  2. Keep a slide show together about fire ecology. Use it in times of high fire danger. Keep the portable fire exhibit around, too.
  3. Continue activities in the bum area. Lower the fire emphasis and combine it with other information.
  4. Ready the visitors for fire, especially in times of high fire danger. Make them aware that programs may be cancelled while ranger personnel are fighting a fire. Make a note to that effect on the ranger–led activity schedule.

All interpreters know the credo:

Through interpretation, understanding; Through understanding, appreciation; Through appreciation, protection.

Interpretation has the potential to educate visitors about natural resources and about resource management policies. In turn, increased understanding of natural resources may generate visitor support of resource management policies and protection of park resources. If interpretation can work proactively to connect resource management and park visitors, it will have achieved one of the highest callings of the profession.

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