This audio tour, "Fifty Years of Fire History," discusses the rich fire history of northern Grand Teton National Park. Interviews with park fire staff illustrate past fire events, as well as how management goals and values have changed over the years.
Listen in the park app as you travel north from Colter Bay toward Yellowstone, or explore on the website and follow along on the map below. Each stop is roughly five minutes.
1. Fires and Forest Ecology
Stop 1 (Colter Bay Visitor Center): Learn about the role fire plays in our forests and its importance to this ecosystem.
Host: Welcome to the “50 years of fire history” audio tour. I’m Peri Sasnett, and I work on science media and outreach for the park. I’ll be your host for this tour. The northern part of Grand Teton National Park has a rich fire history, and it’s a great place to see and learn about how fire management has developed over the last 50 years. It’s a large and remote area with few buildings, and it’s managed as wilderness. And it’s surrounded by Forest Service lands that provide a large buffer of wildlands, so the park can often support natural fires on the landscape.
Many of the changes in fire management here over the last several decades parallel broader shifts across the U.S., even though the specifics of various forests and ecosystems may differ. As climate change contributes to fires becoming larger and more frequent, communities throughout the country are going to have to adapt to withstand these fires—especially since, as we’ve learned in the past, it’s both impossible and unwise to attempt to remove fire from the landscape. The more we can learn about fire, in places like this with few developed areas where it can behave more or less naturally, the better we can understand it and learn to live with it.
In this tour, we’ll hear from fire managers and scientists about their perspectives on this dynamic landscape. We’ll begin at Colter Bay and then move north, toward Flagg Ranch. First, we’ll learn a bit about what’s called our ‘fire regime’, which is our natural fire cycle in the lodgepole pine and mixed conifer forests of Grand Teton—such as the ones that surround the visitor center here. Basically, these forests are adapted to large, intense fires every 100-300 years. Most of the mature trees die in those so-called ‘stand-replacing’ fires, but they regenerate from seed afterward. Lodgepoles are especially well-adapted to fire because they have serotinous cones, which open with the heat of a fire. The little seeds take root on the bare mineral soil, which is cleared of vegetation by the fire, and thousands of little lodgepole seedlings take root. Here’s Diane Abendroth, the park’s fire ecologist, to tell you more about the park’s fire regime:
Diane: Some people have learned about fire ecology and they've learned about the story that comes from those Southwest ponderosa pine forests or maybe the pine forests in Florida where the idea is that. Fire used to burn in the understory of the forest and kind of clean up the regeneration there and open up the understory. But the overstory trees would survive the fire, and it would be kind of an open forest with a nice, park-like atmosphere, and that kind of forest needed regular fires to maintain itself. But here in the northern Rockies, it's a different fire regime. Our trees, they don't necessarily survive a fire very well, and sometimes fire can be pretty dramatic. The trees will torch up, we have crown fire, and patches of trees will just be scorched and then they'll die the next year, or maybe they'll be completely consumed. So while our forests aren't adapted to survive fire like they are in the Southwest, they are adapted to come back after a fire. And so their specialty is seedlings—and having a stand replacing fire just means that they're setting the stage for another generation.
Host: Another aspect to consider about fire here, in addition to the ecology of the forests themselves, is how indigenous people influenced the landscape before Europeans arrived. Tribes in different ecosystems across the continent used fire in many ways and for many different purposes, but almost all of them performed some sort of strategic burning. Ron Steffens, a fire analyst for Grand Teton, can tell us more:
Ron: There is documented use by Native Americans, that includes a whole variety of burn patterns and reasons to burn. One researcher identified 70 different types of ways that Native Americans would burn. And they wouldn't do all of that here, but certainly to support travel they would burn in spring. And so they would open up the dry slopes, and that was a good time to do kind of these burns. They could travel for five to ten years after a fire. They burned ridges for the same reason they burn for hunting, and also to get rid of mosquitoes. And I've read—I don't know if it was practice here—but in parts of Arizona, they would set a spring fire which would get rid of the mosquitoes, and the elk would come in because there's no mosquitoes and they couldn't see the hunters. And they would have a little elk meal as well as no bugs. So that the utility of fire on this landscape has a long long history.
Host: You might wonder how we know about fires and fire cycles that were occurring hundreds or thousands of years ago. It takes a bit of investigating, according to Diane, but it is possible to figure out:
Diane: Fire ecologists know that when settlers came to the west they did some things that interrupted the fire regime. They had grazing animals and they did fire suppression. And so when we think about what is the historic way that fires burned, we have to do some detective work to try to figure out how fire behaved on the landscape before settlement. Some of those ways are looking at fire scarred trees because some trees are a little bit resistant to fire. Some of the bark can burn and even some of the needles can be charred, but the tree will survive but it leaves a scar on the bark of the tree. [00:01:03] And that way you can see where the scar is and then use the tree rings to actually count the years between sometimes repeated fire scars on the same tree. And so fire ecologists have used this to try to figure out how often the forest normally burned before settlement, and some of these trees go back hundreds of years.
2. Fire Exclusion
Stop 2 (north of Colter Bay Visitor Center): Learn about how Europeans managed fire when they arrived in this area, and how the government shaped fire management in the early 1900s.
Host: As Anglo-American settlers came into the West, they did not fully appreciate the role that both natural fire and indigenous burning practices played on these landscapes. Trees were generally seen as a resource and a commodity—something that people didn’t want to burn. As national parks and land management agencies were founded, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, rangers put significant effort into suppressing fires whenever and wherever they started. This policy was formalized after massive fires in 1910, which burned millions of acres in the Rocky Mountain West. In just a few days in late August, over three million acres burned in Idaho and Montana. It was certainly a human disaster, with over eighty people killed in the blazes. But it was also seen as a disaster more broadly, by people who saw fire as an enemy and relied on logging for their livelihood. I asked Chip Collins, our Fire Management Officer, about early fire management by the government in the west:
Chip: So I think when we first started managing fires in this part of the west, we looked at resources as commodities and valued them in that way. We didn’t value ecosystem processes, and fire was seen as a destructive force to those resources when thought of in their economic value. So we put out fires as often as we could, regardless of its role on the landscape. The resultant policy was that all fires would be suppressed, and the end goal was that by 10am the morning after a fire was discovered it would be controlled and out.
Host: In the wake of the 1910 fires, the U.S. Forest Service instituted the 10am rule, that Chip mentioned. Firefighters weren’t always successful, but these efforts did suppress a significant proportion of fires over the next 50 years, particularly as firefighting technology improved. The mid-1900s also coincided with a wetter climatic period, which allowed crews to be more successful at suppressing fires. Across the country, Smokey Bear’s famous campaign that “only you can prevent forest fires,” taught a generation of Americans that fires were something that needed to be removed from the landscape.
This policy had different effects in different ecosystems. In places like Ponderosa pine forests, which were used to frequent, low-severity fires, the impacts of excluding fire were obvious: brush and small trees grew up and created a dense undergrowth that resulted in much hotter fires when they did burn. In contrast, places like the lodgepole pine and mixed conifer forests we have here in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are used to seeing fire every 100-300 years—so 50 or 100 years with fewer fires does not have as dramatic of an impact. Even so, these forests did miss out on decades of fire, and we are now lacking the 40-100 year old forests that would have grown in the wake of those fires. Here’s Chip to explain how we see those effects on the landscape here:
Chip: So in Grand Teton Park we average twelve wildland fires a year. Over half of those we automatically suppress, whether it’s due to the cause, human caused, or near values that would be negatively affected like a built area, visitor center, or campground. Every one of those fires we put out is a missed opportunity on the landscape, when we’re looking at it from the resource side. The net effect over 100 years is pretty significant. And what we’re missing in the park may be some very large fires that would have grown had we not put them out, but more likely is a whole range of small-medium size fires that would have broken up even-aged stands of trees, provided those younger habitats that species depend on, and would have provided resiliency across the park.
3. Waterfalls Canyon Fire
Stop 3 (Colter Bay Swim Beach): The 1974 Waterfalls Canyon Fire was one of the first fires in the National Park Service that was allowed to burn naturally. Listen to find out how it came to pass and what its legacy has been.
Host: After decades where land managers viewed fires negatively and tried to remove them from the landscape, scientists started to see negative impacts in some forests from this lack of fire. In the Sequoia forests of California, for example, there had been no new sequoia seedlings for decades. Eventually, scientists learned that those trees have serotinous cones, like lodgepole pines, which need fire to open them and release their seeds. Florida and the Southeast U.S. had a long cultural history of intentional burning, and institutional perspectives started to shift there as well. The 1960s and 70s were a time of change throughout the fire world, where people started to realize that perhaps fire wasn’t the enemy they had thought it was.
This shift in understanding took shape in many different ways across the country, including in Grand Teton National Park. One of the first fires in a national park that managers allowed to continue burning naturally, rather than trying to put it out, was on the west shore of Jackson Lake in Waterfalls Canyon. This is the canyon due west across the lake, with the large, prominent waterfall partway up—much of the area that burned in 1974 is now dense, dark green regrowth of lodgepole pines that you can see from here. Diane Abendroth, our park fire ecologist, will share a bit about the Waterfalls Canyon Fire:
Diane: In the 1970s fire ecologists in the Jackson area started to realize that burned areas were kind of a rarity on the landscape here and our wildlife habitats and landscapes were missing out on the recently-burned, early successional stages of vegetation. And they started to do some prescribed fire on the Forest Service and they also thought about ways to maybe allow some of these naturally caused fires to do good work on the landscape to introduce the regrowth of forests into the mixture. The Waterfalls Canyon Fire was one of the first fires in the National Park Service where this was allowed to happen. And one of the reasons it was possible to do here is because Jackson Lake was a really big fuel break.
Host: Allowing these natural processes to take place is part of the National Park Service mission statement. And it also allows scientists to learn from the landscape and better understand the ecology we have here. With fire specifically, managers learn new things from each incident about how fires behave in this place and how best to manage them, so that we can support those natural processes while also protecting people and property. Here’s Ron Steffens, a fire analyst for the park, to explain more about this process:
Ron: The west side of Jackson Lake has been a landscape where fire has taught us a lot of lessons. In 1974 the Waterfalls Canyon Fire was ignited by lightning. There was a new policy in the park service that allowed us to manage fires for resource benefit so that fire was monitored and tracked to ensure that there was no values threatened by it. It burned for a good part of the summer and became a lesson on how fire is a part of the Northern Rockies, and as it burns it will teach us what we need to think about when we're managing large landscapes and managing fire.
Throughout the U.S. American West and internationally, I think people a lot of people have learned from it. The publicity wasn't positive. People were concerned about the smoke, concerned that it might impact tourism—but people drove by and looked at it and learned from it and it became a part of the visit to the park. And since then we've continued to evolve our strategies and our management and numerous fires have burned on the west side of the lake and elsewhere in this ecosystem where we can manage the fire with while limiting the threats to the values at risk.
Host: The Waterfalls Canyon Fire was certainly controversial at the time, but in retrospect it was the right thing to do, ecologically speaking. I asked our Fire Management Officer, Chip Collins, what he had to say about the legacy of that decision, and about the people who made it:
Chip: I think they were bold decisions, and I applaud them for doing that. It was certainly different than the norm, and I think it's easy to look at it rationally and understand why a fire is a natural disturbance regime—why having that absent from the landscape would be a bad thing in a natural setting. But then to actually go and not put fires out when you've done that for decades, and all of your partners around you have done that for decades…I think that was a pretty bold decision. Especially as the season went on and the Waterfalls Canyon Fire did burn for many weeks and received a lot of negative press, both locally and nationally. I think those managers stuck to their guns and did it for the right reasons, and I think had they not been able to do that, we wouldn't have the program here that we have today.
4. A Patchwork of Habitats
Stop 4 (Jackson Lake Overlook): What effects do repeated fires have on a landscape, and why is that important for forests and wildlife? Explore our Fire History page to see a map of fires in the park over the last several decades, including the ones Diane and Ron discuss.
Host: As you look across to the west shore of Jackson Lake, you can see evidence of several fires that have burned over there—if you look carefully. Far to the south, you can see where the Waterfalls Canyon Fire burned almost 50 years ago, in 1974. Much of that area is now dense lodgepole pine forest or shrubs. The dark forested area that you see across the lake and extending south, which is left if you’re facing the lake, is all regrowth from that fire. If you look directly across, you’ll see that forest grow patchy and disappear, where a fire burned in 2000. Farther to the north, which is to the right, you can see burned trees on the ridgeline from the 2016 Berry Fire. Explore the fire history page on Grand Teton’s website to see a map of how these fires overlap one another. Here’s Diane Abendroth, the park’s fire ecologist, and Ron Steffens, a fire analyst in the park, to discuss what we’re seeing on the other side of the lake. Diane mentions the Moran fire in 2000, which burned even farther south than the Waterfalls Canyon Fire—you can see it from Colter Bay.
Diane: You can see across the lake now that there are a lot of little trees out there, and some areas where shrubs still dominate, and some areas where the trees are actually getting bigger. And then if you look to the north of that fire and to the south, you'll see some fires that burned in the year 2000. That's the Moran Fire, the Wilcox Fire, and the Glade Fire. Those were lightning caused fires, but those weren't fires that the Park Service was attempting to allow to just burn. But they suppressed them in a way that included letting them go up into the rocks of the Tetons, while protecting some cabins and some values in the lower elevations. But Jackson Lake is a pretty good fuel break. And if you look at the whole area on the backside of the lake, people really haven't played a very big role in fire there. And it looks like maybe it looked before settlers came and started to interfere with the landscape.
Ron: The other thing we learned with the waterfalls canyon fire and the fires afterwards is the value of. Diversity of a fire landscape. So the fire in 1974. 26 years later in 2000 there are fires burning from the south and from the north. And as those fires burned into the Waterfalls Canyon area, there was a younger forest. It is much more shaded because of the density of the regeneration of the forest, and both of those fires slowed and went out. So we're able to demonstrate and learn from the value of a diverse landscape with a diverse pattern of burns.
Host: This type of area, where several different fires overlap like a patches on a quilt, creates excellent wildlife habitat. Many species appreciate recently-burned areas for the lush plant regrowth and the high populations of wood-boring insects and small mammals. Perhaps even more important is the juxtaposition of different habitats, where old growth forest opens out to a grassy clearing, or dense young lodgepoles border a shrubby meadow. Wildlife love these so-called “edge habitats”, from elk and deer that want to graze in meadows but shelter in the forest, or raptors that want to nest in the trees and hunt rodents in the open. The series of fires we’ve seen on the west shore of the lake is ideal for creating this mix of habitats where wildlife can thrive. Here are Ron and Diane to explain more about what we can learn from this type of landscape:
Ron: The landscape where you get a diversity of forest ages and a diversity of regeneration that supports the wildlife that people have come to cherish here. All landscapes have a cycle. Fire is such a dramatic way of resetting that cycle that I think it lets us humbly look around and learn that we need to learn from this place.
Diane: When you have towns or people's homes or other kinds of developments in the mix, with the public lands and forests, it makes it kind of dangerous to have fire on the landscape too. But here in the Greater Yellowstone we have just enormous vast areas with nobody's house in the way. And so that makes it possible to see what nature can do on its own. And we don't have to try to interfere.
5. The 1988 Fires
Stop 5 (Huck Fire Turnout): You've probably heard of the 1988 fires in Yellowstone. Listen to hear about their legacy for fire management in the West and what scientists have learned from them.
Host: If you remember 1988, you probably remember the Yellowstone fires that occurred that year. It was an extremely dry and windy summer, and huge fires burned about a third of Yellowstone National Park—about 800,000 acres within the park, in addition to other fires in surrounding areas and in Grand Teton. These fires were on the national news every night, and sensational coverage implied that the park was being destroyed, or that the entire park was burning. The perception was that the park was just letting the fires burn—though some were monitored initially in the early summer, there was a huge firefighting effort that involved thousands of crewmembers once it became clear how extreme the fire season would be. But even so, the conditions were such that those efforts had little effect on the total acres burned, even though they did succeed in saving iconic structures like the Old Faithful Inn. Check out Yellowstone’s website to learn more about that summer.
Though 1988 was an extreme year, dramatic fires are part of the ecosystem here, as we’ve discussed. Ecologists that study past fires, with methods that Diane mentioned in our first stop, note that there were similar magnitude fires in the 1700s in this area. Regardless of this history, the 1988 fires were a huge focal point for the public, and drew national attention to fire management and the new programs that tolerated and supported fire as a natural process. Though there were reviews of these policies after the fires, they concluded that the ecological basis for fire on the landscape was sound. At this stop, if you look to the east, you can see the regrowth from the 1988 fires, and where the Berry Fire reburned part of that young forest in 2016. If you drive through Yellowstone, look for the contrast between these homogenous stands of lodgepole pine that are about 30 years old, versus the larger, taller stands of older trees with a variety of species. Here is Andy Norman, fuels specialist from the Bridger-Teton National Forest, discussing the significance of those 1988 fires and their legacy:
Andy: We had 1988 where Yellowstone had the big fires, and there was a lot of thinking about whether we were doing the right thing and whether these fires were good or bad. And really the lesson of ‘88 is it reaffirmed that here in the Northern Rockies, large stand-replacing fires are the norm. And we need to be able to allow those to burn.
I think the legacy is that we did acknowledge that large standard placing fires are part of the process. It took a lot of effort on the parts of the people that managed those fires, even from the superintendent of Yellowstone. His career was never really the same after that, even though he made the right decision. And so now we just keep paving the way.
Host: Next, we’ll hear from Monica Turner, who is a fire ecologist at the University of Wisconsin. Her first field season in the Yellowstone area was 1988, and she’s been studying fire and forests here ever since:
Monica: The 1988 fires were really a watershed summer for fire in the West and for fire in our national parks. The fires were enormous. They were of high severity. They surprised all of us, scientists and managers alike. One of the most surprising results that we have found from many, many years of research was just how the forests rebounded. And they rebounded without any intervention from humans the ability to just regrow and regenerate after the fires was probably the most impressive lesson.
6. The Berry Fire
Stop 6 (Headwaters Lodge parking lot, Flagg Ranch): The Berry Fire, in 2016, was the largest fire in park history. Learn about how it spread across the landscape, and how years of preparation helped protect the buildings at Flagg Ranch.
Host: After the 1988 fires, there was some hesitancy about having fire on the landscape again, which took several years to fade. The 90s were relatively quiet fire years in Grand Teton, though the park’s fire program became more formalized and began to use more prescribed fire. In general, the fire regime here is quite sporadic—in many summers, only a few acres burn. To have large fires, a very dry summer must coincide with lightning to start them and wind to spread them. The 2000s saw more fires, including some along the Grassy Lake Road, west of Flagg Ranch, and two prominent fires on the west shore of Jackson Lake. These burned both north and south of the Waterfalls Canyon Fire, and they are visible as shrubby slopes across the lake. There’s an interactive fire history map on the park’s website, if you’d like to see where they’re located in more detail. But the biggest fire in park history came in 2016.
The Berry Fire was started by a lightning strike in late July, a few miles west of the lakeshore on the far side of Jackson Lake. Managers decided to monitor the fire and allow it to play its natural role, given the remoteness of the location. The nearest developed area, Flagg Ranch, was about ten miles away, and fire staff had spent years thinning vegetation around it to protect it in case of a fire. The Berry Fire grew slowly for a few weeks, then high winds pushed it down to the lake and across it. The fire crossed the highway as well, which was closed for five days during the National Park Service centennial celebration.
The weather and the fire behavior calmed for another few weeks and the road reopened, then another wind event in September pushed the fire six miles in an afternoon up toward Flagg Ranch and the South Gate of Yellowstone. Preparations in the area, both in past years and by crews during the fire, allowed the fire to pass through the developed area without burning any structures. Snow and rain dampened the fire by mid-September, after it burned over 20,000 acres. Here are Diane Abendroth, the park’s fire ecologist, and Ron Steffens, a fire analyst in the park, discussing how those preparations, called “fuels reduction” or “fuels treatments” helped protect buildings at Flagg Ranch. When Ron says “mechanical” fuels treatments, he means that they were thinned with tools, instead of by a prescribed fire or other means:
Diane: We do have some developed areas in the parks and forest here, and even though there aren't very many of them, they're still important to protect. And so we do take action to thin the trees around these developed areas and create a buffer of lighter fuels, to try to make it possible for firefighters to safely engage a fire to protect those resorts and homes.
Ron: And an example of that was the Berry Fire. It was making the second of two 2-3 mile runs, so in a day it had crossed Jackson Lake and burned three miles. Three weeks later, the conditions were very similar. Two years earlier we had prepared Flagg Ranch and Headwaters by doing mechanical fuel reduction, where we trim away the trees that would become ladder fuels, and we reduce the amount of fuel on the ground that would create the heat that would then allow the fire to burn into the crowns. With all of that years of work, we assigned a significant number of resources to protect the developed area. And as the fire came through, they could safely keep that fire on the ground near the structures and protect the structures. Because that landscape directly adjacent to the developed areas had been pre-treated and the fuel was reduced.
Host: Something that’s unique about managing fires today, as opposed to decades ago, is that you can manage the fire to accomplish multiple goals. You don’t have to choose to either put it out or not put it out – you can mostly allow it to play its natural role, while also taking some suppression actions to protect buildings or infrastructure. We also have the benefit of learning from all the fires we’ve managed before. Here’s Chip Collins, the park’s Fire Management Officer, to discuss how those past fires benefit us now:
Chip: I think the success of those earlier fires in the 70s and 80s eventually are what led to a—I think—a more enlightened policy that we have now, that recognizes that you might do any number of things on any one fire at any one time during the season, based on values that are being threatened, or not, and how the fire is burning. And so I think you can draw a direct line from the successes of the 70s and 80s to the ability that we had at the Berry Fire to take action when it went across the highway and closed the roads. So we worked on that to keep road access open when the fire started to threaten Flagg Ranch. We took suppression actions to protect the cabins around there, and yet still we're able to manage the rest of the fire over the long term. So I think it was a direct line from that. And also the more fire you have on the landscape. So looking back in the area of the Berry Fire, you know we had fires each of the three or four decades prior to that in that same area. And the more of those fire events you have on the landscape I think the easier it is then to manage each successive fire. And the benefits we have from the Berry fire will allow us to do the same for many decades to come up there I think.
7. Looking Forward
Stop 7 (Grassy Lake Road): How is climate change affecting fire behavior, and how will that change forests in Greater Yellowstone? Hear what scientists have to say.
Host: Over the past ten or so years, fire managers across the West have been seeing larger fires and more extreme fire behavior. This is largely driven by a changing climate, which brings hotter temperatures, drier summers, and longer fire seasons. Here in Greater Yellowstone, we are see not only larger, but more frequent fires. Earlier in this century, managers could rely on areas that had burned in the last 50 years or so to stop or slow the progression of a new fire. But now, they’re observing that forests that burned just 10-30 years ago can carry fire, under the right conditions—and we’re getting those conditions more and more often. Here’s Monica Turner, a fire ecologist from the University of Wisconsin who’s studied these forests since 1988, to tell us what this may mean for the future:
Monica: Why would more frequent fires be a problem for forests in Grand Teton? It takes some time for the trees to grow big enough to start producing the cones that provide the seeds that allow forests to recover after a wildfire. If the forest burns again before it has had enough time to grow big enough and produce enough of a cone crop, we might not have enough seeds to regenerate the forest. We've seen the effects of that in the 2016 Berry Fire in Grand Teton, where it re burned areas of the Glade Fire. We've seen a drastic reduction in the number of seedling trees that have come back into those areas where we had only 16 year old trees burn, primarily because they haven't had enough time to build up that seed crop.
Host: Another factor that Monica has observed is that in some locations, even when a mature forest burns and there are plenty of seeds, it’s becoming too hot for those seedlings to germinate and survive.
These changes will not only impact these ecological processes, but also how we manage fires, and how we understand the presence of past fires on the landscape. Here, Ron Steffens, a fire analyst for the park, discusses how the Berry Fire, in 2016, interacted with areas that had burned in 1988. Up until that year, very few fires had re-burned any of the regrowth from ‘88.
Ron: We learned on the berry fire that our ability to utilize past fires as areas that slow a fire can sometimes be overcome by the intensity of the weather conditions and the fuel. So in that case some of the prior burned areas were burned through again, and this was with multiple days of high winds of 25-35 miles per hour, and fires that were crossing parts of the Snake River, burning into particularly the 1988 fires and slowing there, but in areas that had burned more recently the fire did not slow down. And it became a different type of fire when it was burning in younger fuel. But it slowed some but it did not stop. So we're seeing now. At a time when we're tracking and monitoring change in the climate that we may be seeing more frequent fire potential in our ecosystem and our bio region because we have more days that are drier. The days may stay drier at night and less humidity recovery, so that the fires are burning further into the night than we've seen in the past. And that may be one of the effects of a change in the climate.
Host: As the way fires behave on the landscape changes, that will affect the way staff make decisions about how to manage them. Here’s Diane Abendroth, the park’s fire ecologist, reflecting on what they might look like:
Diane: When I started my career in western Wyoming in fire, we used to think that fire was scarce, and in order to have a properly functioning ecosystem we needed to introduce more of it on the landscape. That maybe we'd been suppressing it too much and changing the vegetation to the point where there's just not enough of that early forest out there. And so in my work, we really encouraged people to allow some fires to burn where it was safe to do so, and also we did a lot of prescribed fire. And 20 to 25 years later, it seems like with the climate and with the way fires are burning, maybe we need to start thinking about the unburned forests being the rarity on the landscape. And I think that's a…kind of interesting but daunting change.
8. Fire Just Is
Stop 8 (Flagg Canyon Picnic Area): "Fire isn't good or bad—it just is." Fire managers from Grand Teton National Park and Bridger-Teton National Forest reflect on the progress of the last 50 years, and what we need to think about for the future.
Host: Hopefully, this tour has helped you learn about fire in Grand Teton, the ways we manage it, and how that’s changed over time: from Native American burning, to the era of fire suppression and Smokey Bear, to a more scientific understanding of fire ecology. Perhaps you may even see fire in a different way than you did before.
The northern part of Grand Teton, and much of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, have large areas of undeveloped land where fire can play its natural role—however dramatic that might be. Part of the National Park Service mission is to support natural ecological processes, which includes wildland fires. Fire can be scary and destructive when it impacts our homes and communities, but this is a place where we can learn to tolerate and support its ecological role. It’s also an opportunity to study fire, to better understand how it behaves and how we can adapt our communities to live with fire. Perhaps we can even come to appreciate the beauty of burned forests—the lush green regrowth, colorful, vibrant wildflowers, tiny new tree seedlings, silvery trunks of standing dead trees, and the open skies above.
Andy Norman, the fuels specialist on the Bridger-Teton National Forest, has been working in fire since the 1970s, largely in Jackson Hole. I asked him how fire management has changed during his career:
Andy: You know, traditionally it was forest service policy that you if you had a wildfire, no matter how it started, you would order enough resources so that by 10am the next morning, the fire would be controlled. That was in place into the 1970s, and taking that away and changing that of course was a huge milestone. And then since then it’s been incremental. The funny thing is, you hear read some of the articles and some of the discussions in the 70s, and it's like people are saying the same thing now. 40 years later, you know, “fire management has to be part of land management planning” and “fire management has to be integrated with other resources.” All these things that we're saying now, and you go back, and we were saying them back then. So we're getting there. We may have some bumps, especially with a big fire season and we think we might have to readjust or go a different way. But I think we're still slowly headed in the right direction.
Host: One of the hardest things when talking about fire is that people often tend to ascribe feelings to it—whether you see it as good, bad, scary, or sad. Honestly, it can be hard not to, when you see the power of this force on the landscape. But when we’re trying to make decisions, as a society, that way of viewing things isn’t particularly helpful. I asked Chip Collins, the park’s Fire Management Officer, what he thinks about this perspective:
Chip: I think that's a legacy of our own success with say Smokey Bear’s messaging about preventing fire. Certainly we don't want human-caused fires and external fires on the landscape. But to ascribe good or bad to a fire, I think, is just the wrong perspective to take. Fire is inevitable. All of our landscapes out here regularly burn, and we’ve already shown that we're unsuccessful at trying to suppress all fires. We simply can't do that. And it's not good for the landscape anyways. But generally it seems like we ascribe those feelings based on a fire's impact to the human built environment or to people. And I think from the, you know, the wilderness and the landscape’s perspective, it's neither good nor bad—it just is.
Host: Thanks for listening to this audio tour, and be sure to look for others in the Grand Teton National Park app. If you’d like to learn more about wildland fire, explore the fire pages on our website, at nps.gov/grte or at tetonfires.com
Last updated: October 23, 2019
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