Let's Not Let History Repeat Itself

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When the storm calms, the fire quells, and the smoke subsides, we may be left devastated — but we’re also left with an opportunity to learn. At their end, disasters and unanticipated circumstances provide us with time to reflect, and offer important hindsight that we can use to prepare for the future.

This truth is evident in the case of the Yellowstone fires of 1988, some of the most expansive — and expensive — wildfires in the history of the National Park Service. Here we’ll take a look at the lessons learned from these fires; including how they started, why they were significant, why some fires are critical to ecological stability, and what lessons can we take away to better prepare and manage wildfires in the future.

The Benefits of the Fire Cycle

Not all effects of fire are negative. Fire has long shaped the flora and fauna of Yellowstone, forcing native species to adjust and thrive along the way. It aids in nutrient cycling, and provides the opportunity for new growth — some plant species actually depend on fire for reproduction to flourish. Several other benefits fires have on the environment are: the creation of bare mineral soil (good for seedlings), the dispersal of seeds, and the production of rich forest floors that allow for lush plant growth. Burned bark even provides nutrition for elk.

Many fires are a naturally-occurring result of lightning or other natural catalysts. In fact, approximately 26 fires a year happen in Yellowstone as the result of lightning. Many of these fires quickly burn out on their own, with approximately 75% never expanding further than 0.25 acres in size. Without these mild fires, the diversity of aging plant growth creates an accumulation of deadfall, ultimately making an environment unable to withstand a larger, more dangerous fire.

The Human Affect on the Natural Fire Cycle

Unfortunately, human involvement has proven to be a dangerous instigator of expansive fires. The cars we rely on to get around (and to drive through beautiful natural parks) utilize a lot of flammable fluids, which, when leaking or not properly maintained, can ignite and spread flames. Parks like Yellowstone are also prime locations for camping trips, bringing a high number of campfires and people who may not know how to properly monitor them, or how to ensure the fire is fully out at the end of the night.

In 2015, a total of 2,613 acres in Yellowstone burned on account of human activities such as campfires, vehicles, and cigarettes. That may sound like a lot of acreage, but it’s only a small fraction of the 35,652 acres that burned across the whole state of Wyoming that same year. Whether we intend to or not, humans are having an affect on the naturally-occurring fire cycle in regions like Yellowstone.

The Unexpected Fires of 1988

In 1988, Yellowstone saw 9 fires caused by humans, and 42 caused by lightning. Combined, these fires resulted in the largest fire-fighting effort on record — costing $120 million and involving 25,000 people in suppression efforts. Approximately 300 large mammals were killed, and nearly a third of the park was affected. Although bears and fish have not been negatively impacted over time, the moose population has dropped in response to the loss of the old growth forest that burned in the 1988 fires.

The 1988 Yellowstone fires changed our understanding of wildfires in the US, and how they are handled. Since 1972, naturally-occurring fires were left to burn out on their own. Carefully constructed data models were used to predict the natural progression of fires, and this data was used to determine when to let a fire burn itself out. But the 1988 fires took an unexpected turn, moving at unprecedented speeds. By the time human intervention was commissioned, fire had consumed more than double the amount of acres burned in total since 1972.

Lessons from the 1988 Yellowstone Fires

Proper fire management requires that some naturally occurring fires burn themselves out. It is, in fact, critical to reducing the threat of dangerous wildfires. When smaller fires occur on a regular basis, they clear out the oldest brush and dead materials, keeping the plant life fresher and sturdier overall; and much stronger in the face of any larger, threatening fire.

With the introduction of more human-populated areas, managing the spread of wildfires has become a challenge. As firefighting and prevention increases, the smaller, natural fires are often quelled instead of being left to burn out. Without them, deadfall and underbrush can pile up, producing highly flammable tinder that invites fires to quickly grow out of control. Letting wildfires burn near populated areas is risky, but removing all naturally-occurring fire is even riskier — it creates a breeding ground for kindling.

By learning from the past, national parks services have continued to improve their fire management programs. They now let naturally-caused fires to burn, as long as they are no threat to people or property. In order to help assess these fires, they rely on data projections that can quickly calculate multiple scenarios. While the disastrous fires of 1988 left the land scarred and weakened, they taught us important lessons for the future — now, we can focus on ways to allow nature to take its course without causing undue risk to populated areas.

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