Wildland Fire History — Media Coverage of the 1988 Yellowstone Fires

Conrad Smith, Assistant Professor of Journalism, Ohio State University

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.

“Journalism, like any other storytelling activity, is a form of fiction...” —Robert Manhoff & Michael Schudson, Reading the News

The Yellowstone wildfires became a 1988 media event, especially in early September as flames approached the Old Faithful geyser and two tourist towns northeast of the park. On 29 different nights, network news viewers saw television stories about monster wildfires, destroyed forests, beleaguered tourists, suffering merchants, brave fire fighters, inept public officials, flawed fire policy, and—occasionally—about the fiery rebirth of nature. Newspaper stories had more details and usually less hype, but were written in the same spirit.

There were some surprising errors. An August 30 ABC television story contained an interview with a man identified as “Stanley Mott, Director, National Park Service.” He appears to be a tourist. A September 22 New York Times story stated categorically it is Park Service policy never to suppress natural fires, and that all fires are suppressed in national forests. Among 112 newspaper and news magazine stories about the fires for which I contacted named sources, nine percent of those sources said they were misidentified. Ten percent said their names were misspelled. Sources quoted by the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and USA Today said comments attributed to them were fabricated. According to one source, a September 8 Chicago Tribune story contained more errors than facts.

Other studies of reporting accuracy have found similar kinds of errors occurring with similar frequency. Journalists correctly argue that mistakes will happen under deadline pressure, especially in the chaos that surrounds any kind of natural catastrophe. The 1988 wildfires were largely inaccessible to reporters, and it was difficult even for experts to obtain accurate figures about the fires’ effects. Reporters had difficulty keeping track of whether specific fires were caused by lightning or people, and had difficulty keeping track of whether individual fires had started inside or outside of Park Service jurisdiction. Some even had trouble understanding that the Park Service and Forest Service are separate agencies.

Reporters accustomed to urban structure fires that are extinguished in hours may have had difficulty understanding the inability of authorities to suppress wildfires with equal speed. Local residents who believed all fires could easily have been extinguished if only there had been more bulldozed firebreaks often succeeded in catching reporters’ attention. Never mind that windborne embers sometimes started spot fires a thousand bulldozer widths away.

Many Americans were left with the cumulative impression that Yellowstone Park burned down in 1988, and that National Park Service wildfire policy was the reason. This perception persists in spite of the fact that the largest fire was fought from inception, and in spite of the fact that several of the fires started outside the park’s jurisdiction where park fire policy did not apply. It persists despite the fact that the fires often burned only the forest floor, leaving many trees untouched. How did this misperception occur?

The literature on science reporting, environmental reporting, and disaster reporting indicates that news stories in these contexts usually focus on discrete events rather than interpretation of those events. Stories about delays in construction of the Tellico Dam in Tennessee, for example, focused on the endangered snail darter fish rather than on the related environmental issues. Most reporters are generalists, and natural catastrophe stories are covered in standard ways. There is an event (wildfires), victims (local residents), and cause (government policy). It didn’t help that our culture interprets fire as the menacing kind of phenomenon that destroys urban dwellings and chases Bambi from the forest. And it didn’t help that the behavior of the 1988 fires confounded experts with decades of experience predicting wildfire behavior. The belief early in August that the fires were under control made their unexpected September runs even more newsworthy.

Just about everyone who ordinarily interprets these kinds of events was caught off guard. Weather predictions based on a century of records were incorrect. Scientifically based predictions about what would burn were incorrect. The public belief that wildfires can be suppressed was incorrect. The normal context for reasoned interpretation simply evaporated under the collapse of so many culturally accepted values. The fires may not have been as ominous and menacing as press accounts implied, but they were impressive. They damaged few structures, but caught the public imagination because of Yellowstone’s symbolic value as a national icon.

For most Americans, the media have already interpreted the 1988 Yellowstone wildfires. If journalism is fiction, the fires were a great story. The challenge facing park interpreters is to put the story into an environmental context, and to help the public understand that Yellowstone did not burn down in 1988. It may be possible, one visitor at a time, to undo the inaccurate impressions about what happened in 1988.

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

Yellowstone National Park

Last updated: January 6, 2017