The Yellowstone fires of 1988 have been described as being instrumental in the public’s understanding of the role of fire in ecosystems, history-making, and career-building. In June of 1988, park managers and fire behavior specialists allowed 18 lightning-caused fires to burn after evaluating them, according to the fire management plan. Eleven of these fires burned themselves out, behaving like many fires had in previous years. The spring of 1988 was wet until the month of June, when hardly any rain fell. Park managers and fire behavior specialists expected that July would be wet, as it had been historically.
Rains did not come in July as expected. By late July, after almost two months of little rain, the moisture content of grasses and small branches reached levels as low as 2 or 3%, and downed trees were as low as 7% (recall that when fuel moisture falls below 13%, fires can grow quickly). In addition, a series of unusually high winds fanned flames that, even in dry conditions, would not have moved with great speed.
Because of the extremely dry conditions, no new natural fires were allowed to burn after July 15 except those started adjacent to existing fires that were clearly going to burn into existing fires. Even so, within a week the fire acreage in the park doubled to about 17,000 acres. After July 21, all fires—including those started naturally—were fully suppressed as staffing would allow. (Human-caused fires had been suppressed from the beginning.) On July 27, during a visit to Yellowstone, the Secretary of the Interior reaffirmed that all fires would be fought, regardless of their origin.
Fighting the Fires
An extensive interagency fire suppression effort was initiated in mid-July in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in an attempt to control or contain this unprecedented series of wildfires. The extreme weather conditions and heavy, dry fuel accumulations presented even the most skilled professional firefighters with conditions rarely observed.
Accepted fire fighting techniques were often ineffective because fires spread long distances by spotting, a phenomenon in which wind carries embers across unburned forest to start spot fires ahead of the main fire. In the severe conditions of 1988, fires were spotting up to a mile and a half ahead—jumping roads, rivers, even the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.
Fires often moved two miles per hour, with common daily advances of five to ten miles. The fast movement, coupled with spotting, made direct attacks on the fires impossibly dangerous, as fire crews could easily be overrun or trapped between a main fire and its outlying spot fires. Even during the night, fires could not be fought. Typically, wildfires “lie down” at night as humidity increases and temperature decreases. But in 1988, the humidity remained low at night, and fire fighting was complicated by the danger of falling trees.
Fire fighting efforts were directed at controlling the flanks of fires and protecting lives and property in their paths. The fire experts on site generally agreed that only rain or snow could stop the fires. They were right: one-quarter inch of snow on September 11 stopped the advance of the fires.
By the last week in September, 42 lightning-caused fires had occurred in or burned into the park, but only eight were still burning. More than $120 million had been spent in control efforts on fires in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and most major park developments—and a few surrounding communities— had been evacuated at least once as fires approached within a few miles. The fire suppression efforts involved many different federal and state agencies, including the armed forces. At the height of the fires, 10,000 people were involved simultaneously. This was the largest such cooperative effort undertaken to date in the United States.
Frequently Asked Questions
The 1988 fires affected approximately 800,000 acres (or ~36%) of the park. Five fires burned into the park that year from adjacent public lands, including the largest, the North Fork Fire. It started accidentally and burned more than 410,000 acres.
Yellowstone usually experiences afternoon showers three or four days each week during the summer, but in 1988 no measurable rain fell for almost three months. The most severe drought in the park’s recorded history occurred that summer. Also, a large number of lightning strikes came with a series of dry storm fronts. This lightning started many of the fires and storm fronts stoked them with particularly high and sustained winds.
It is possible the few fires that started in early June might have been extinguished. However, between 1972 and 1987, the average fire had gone out naturally after burning only one acre. So, while the early fires were monitored closely and some were contained from going out of the park, the history of fire behavior in Yellowstone, coupled with an abnormally wet spring, suggested these fires would go out as previous fires had. After July 15, all fires were fought aggressively from the moment they were detected. Despite the largest fire fighting effort at that time in the history of the nation, weather finally contained the fires when snow fell in September.
After the fires of 1988, a national policy review team examined the national fire policy again, and concluded that natural fire policies in national parks and wilderness areas were basically sound. It also recommended improvements that were incorporated into the National Park Service’s fire policy of June 1990 and into Yellowstone National Park’s fire management plan of 1992.
Confusion in the Media
The Yellowstone fires of 1988 received more national attention than any other event in the history of national parks up to that time. Unfortunately, many media reports were inaccurate or misleading and confused or alarmed the public. The reports tended to lump all fires in the Yellowstone area together as the “Yellowstone Park Fire;” they referred to these fires as part of the park’s natural fire program, which was not true; and they often oversimplified events and exaggerated how many acres had burned. In Yellowstone National Park itself, the fires affected—but did not devastate—793,880 acres or 36% of total park acreage.
A number of major fires started outside the park. These fires accounted for more than half of the total acres burned in the greater Yellowstone area, and included most of the fires that received intensive media attention. The North Fork Fire began in the Targhee National Forest and suppression attempts began immediately. The Storm Creek Fire started as a lightning strike in the Absaroka–Beartooth Wilderness of the Custer National Forest northeast of Yellowstone; it eventually threatened the Cooke City–Silver Gate area, where it received extended national media coverage.
Additional confusion resulted from the mistaken belief that managers in the Yellowstone area let park fires continue burning unchecked because of the natural fire plan—long after such fires were being fought. Confusion was probably heightened by misunderstandings about how fires are fought: if crews were observed not taking action on a fire, casual observers might think the fire was merely being monitored. In fact, in many instances, fire bosses recognized the hopelessness of stopping fires and concentrated their efforts on protecting developed areas.
The most unfortunate public and media misconception about the Yellowstone fire fighting effort may have been that human beings can always control fire. These fires could not be controlled; their raw, unbridled power cannot be over-emphasized. Firefighters were compelled to choose their fights very carefully, and they deserve great praise for working so successfully to save all but a few park buildings.
Post-fire Response and Ecological Consequences
By late September, as the fires were diminishing, plans were already underway in Yellowstone to develop comprehensive programs for all aspects of post-fire response. These included replacing, rehabilitating, or repairing damaged buildings, power lines, fire lines, trails, campsites, and other facilities. Education rangers developed programs to interpret the fires and their effects for visitors and for the general public. Other education specialists developed indoor and outdoor exhibits, publications, and trails to help visitors learn about these historic fires. The park also cooperated with other agencies and state and local governments in promoting the economic recovery of communities near the park that were affected by the fires.
Scientists wanted to monitor the ecological processes following these major fires. The National Park Service cooperated with other agencies and independent researchers and institutions in developing comprehensive research directions for this unparalleled scientific opportunity. Observations actually began while the fires were still burning.
Burning at a variety of intensities, the fires killed many lodgepole pines and other trees, but did not kill most other plants; they merely burned the tops, leaving roots to regenerate. Temperatures high enough to kill deep roots occurred in less than 0.1% of the park. Only under logs and in deep litter accumulations, where the fire was able to burn for several hours, did lethal heat penetrate more deeply into the soil. Where water was available, new plant growth began within a few days. In dry soils, the rhizomes, bulbs, seeds, and other reproductive tissues had to wait until soil moisture was replenished the following spring.
Though animal movements were sometimes affected dramatically by the passage of fires, relatively few animals died. However, portions of the northern range burned, which affected winter survival of grazing animals when coupled with summer drought conditions. In this and many other ways, fires dramatically altered the habitat and food production of Yellowstone for the short term.
The fires of 1988 created a landscape of burns, partial burns, and unburned areas—called a mosaic. A mosaic provides natural firebreaks and sustains a greater variety of plant and animal species. Vegetation capable of sustaining another major fire will be rare for decades, except in extraordinary situations.
Photo Point Along Road Between Canyon and Norris Junctions
Fire-burned forest right after the 1988 fires. NPS/Jim Peaco
Regrowth and pond in the same location in 1989. NPS/Jim Peaco
Last updated: October 23, 2019