Wildland Fire History — The Yellowstone FIRE Team

Gregg Fauth, 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 turn Yellowstone green into ghoulish gray.”

This was the message received by most people who read a newspaper or watched the TV news in summer, 1988. Press reports and hence public perceptions were “quick and dirty,” showing sensationalistic aspects of the fires without all the qualifying background information. In an attempt to present a more in depth and truthful message, the Yel1lowstone Fire Interpretation and Resource Education (FIRE) outreach team was formed.

Composed of three persons, Greg Kroll, Georgia Dempsey, and myself, this team visited communities in the three local states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming and talked with people about what happened during the summer of 1988, why it happened, and what they could expect in the future.

Our approach to this controversial subject was one of honesty about what happened and sensitivity to the human frustrations generated by the fires. This meant admitting that, at times, mistakes were made. We attempted to see the fires through the eyes of the public and empathize with them.

We also felt that it was very important to help the public understand the Park Service’s resource management philosophy in order for them to appreciate the role of natural fire. Without knowledge of the role of natural processes in regulating a wilderness environment, the idea of allowing naturally ignited fires to burn appears to make little sense.

Our target audiences were service clubs, community groups, Chambers of Commerce, and schools (4th grade and up). October through December were spent developing the programs and scheduling. We were “on the road” mid–January through midMarch. No advertising was done; all scheduled groups contacted us through their own initiative.

The reactions we received were mixed. Many people were pleased by what we had to say and were supportive ofthe idea of allowing natural processes to operate in Yellowstone. Quite a few people also felt that “man” should have a heavy hand in manipulating the natural scene. Many emotional reactions, exclusive of screaming and total apathy, were witnessed. One definite benefit was that most people were happy to see that the “faceless bureaucrats” were really people who were willing to listen and talk with them.

In looking back at our audiences, they can be broken down into three categories: the people who were generally in favor of what the Park Service did, but wanted to hear more; the people who disapproved and wanted to hear or voice their displeasure (these were reluctant to change their beliefs or attitudes); and those who wanted more information and were not leaning strongly one way or the other. It was this last group that we hoped to affect the most, by presenting additional in–depth information to assist them in forming an educated opinion on the matter.

One successful example that comes to mind was a man at an American Petroleum Institute meeting. After our presentation he mentioned how he had been telling his friends last summer that “the people in the park were screwing up by not putting all the fires out as fast as possible.” But now he intended to go back to those friends, admitting that he had been wrong. He now understood that fire was not always destructive and “bad.”

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