Last Summer Marked 32 Years Since The Fire That Almost Destroyed Yellowstone National Park
August 14, 2020
In the summer of 1988 the unthinkable happened -- a few errant lightning strikes started a fire. In Yellowstone National Park.
The National Park Service estimates that 18 lightning strikes were the culprits, starting some 42 distinct wildfires. What would follow would be no regular fire season -- over 790,000 acres of the Park were affected, 10,000 people were involved in relief efforts, and $120,000,000 were spent. Vast swaths of the Park were altered for decades to come.
What began with some lightning quickly got out of hand. Firefighters began to battle the blazes halfway through July as a dry early summer conspired with uncommonly windy weather to produce highly dangerous and combustible fire conditions. While ordinarily some natural fires are allowed to burn because fires are a necessary part of the ecosystem, firefighters began to try to contain some of them when it became apparent that it was going to be an ugly summer. In just one week the amount of the Park on fire went up to 17,000 acres.
And then came Black Sunday, the name given to August 20, the day when the fires doubled again, growing to 480,000 acres. By September the fires were getting alarmingly close to Old Faithful Inn.
But by the last week of September, it was finally coming under control. Only eight more fires were burning, and eventually they too flickered out.
After the metaphorical smoke cleared the face of the Park had been changed. Acres of old-growth forest had been replaced by Aspen or Lodgepole Pine seedlings, which resulted in less moose (which prefer old growth) in the Park. As for the loss of animal life, that too was sobering: according to the National Park Service, "about 300 large mammals perished as a direct result of the fires: 246 elk, 9 bison, 4 mule deer, 2 moose." While the enormous human effort that went into containing the fires helped to preserve some human habitations and lives, but did not made any serious dent in the fires themselves.
Even today, there are parts of the Park where you can still see piles of charred wood from those days. And yet, all in all, it could have been much worse. It's an urgent and much-needed reminder that Yellowstone National Park does not exist to serve our entertainment and outdoor recreational needs, although it often does just that. It is a wild and untamed place, where anything can happen, and does.
Watch the New York Times "Retro Report" video on the fire below: