Four convection columns of smoke rose more than 20,000 feet into the air as high winds whipped across eerily empty walkways around Old Faithful Inn.
“In all directions that we looked, it looked like the world was coming to an end,” Joan Anzelmo recalled.
It was “Black Saturday,” the name given to Aug. 20, 1988, when wildfires burned about 150,000 acres of Yellowstone National Park in a day.
Thirty years later, Anzelmo stood in nearly the same spot at Old Faithful where she watched the smoke columns in 1988. Anzelmo served as Yellowstone’s spokesperson throughout the historic fires.
“If I close my eyes I can still see the scenes of ’88 and smell the smoke,” she said. “Then it was a rare scene. Now, sadly, it is all too common.”
Wildfire managers and the public are wrestling today to understand a new era in which large wildfires are no longer thought of as rare events, but common occurrences.
“Yellowstone was the first one that got this national attention, where we saw this huge fire and really saw it as this huge national disaster,” said Michael Kodas, environmental journalist and author of the 2017 book “Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame.”
“Now we see fires of that scale every year, just constantly,” Kodas said.
In 1988 one third of Yellowstone park, almost 800,000 acres, was scorched.
“We always joked that everybody who lived through ’88 — that we lived through a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and now a lot of us have had quite a few other once-in-a-lifetime experiences since then,” said Andrew Norman, Bridger-Teton National Forest wildfire specialist.
In the United States in the 1970s wildfires burned, on average, about 3 million acres a year. In 2015 there were roughly the same number of fires, but over 10 million acres burned for the first time on record. Today’s fires are dwarfing their predecessors.
The old way: Put it out
For the first approximately 100 years of its tenure, the U.S. Forest Service’s wildfire policy was essentially to suppress any and all fires. The National Park Service operated on a similar policy after its founding in 1916. During that time that management strategy allowed vegetation in forests that previously experienced wildland fires as part of their natural ecology to become overgrown.
In some ponderosa pine forests throughout the West, where historically fires would burn every few decades, there are now 500 trees per acre where there used to be 100. In other areas the increase is even more dramatic.
In the 1970s increasing scientific evidence pointed to the positive role wildfire plays in supporting the regeneration of landscapes and warned the overgrown forests could fuel increasingly large fires.
The Forest Service and the Park Service adopted a policy of allowing lightning-caused fires to burn as long as they didn’t threaten people or property.
In Yellowstone, where lodgepole pine dominates the high-elevation forests, stand replacing fires, those that burn hot and kill all the trees in an area, are necessary to release the seeds in the pinecones and allow new growth.
Such forests burn big every few hundred years, so suppressing fire for 100 years in Yellowstone probably did not have the effect on the fire regime it did in other places.
In 1988 Yellowstone was due for a big burn.
Snowfall during the winter of 1988 was unremarkable until heavy snows in April and May.
The fires started slowly in June and they, too, were initially unremarkable. But no rain fell in June. And no rain fell in July. The forests of Yellowstone had experienced drought for several years in a row, the logdepole pines were all the same age and they hadn’t burned in a century. Despite the spring snowfall, the fires in Yellowstone that summer burned bigger and longer than in recorded history.
“The underlying lesson from that is that those conditions were ripe,” Anzelmo said.
More and more, hot and dry conditions are becoming the norm across the West, starting the fire season earlier in the spring, leaving forests drier throughout the summer and extending the season later into the fall.
“There have been a lot of warm, dry seasons in the last 15 or 20 years, there’s no doubt about it,” Norman said. “And we are seeing more fires, more and larger fires on the forest since ‘88.”
Fire seasons in the West lengthened by an average of 78 days between 1970 and 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The longer seasons are straining resources. Firefighting is often a seasonal position, but with longer fire seasons firefighter numbers dwindle before the fires do, said Lori Iverson, public information officer for the National Elk Refuge and a firefighter for over 20 years.
In the spring firefighters from this region often go to the Southwest to help fight fires before the season here has started, and fighters from there come here later in the summer when their monsoon season suppresses fires.
Moving firefighters around the West can help, but resources are still limited, Iverson said.
“As a whole, fire seasons are longer and busier,” said Chip Collins, fire management officer for Grand Teton National Park. “And for individual fires, more often than not, the issues we are dealing with are more complex than they used to be.”
In the past firefighters could expect cooler nighttime temperatures to raise the humidity, causing flames to die down in the early morning, providing a chance to fight the fires before they started growing again by mid-morning, Kodas said. Today, overnight temperatures aren’t dropping as much, allowing fires to rage through the night, he said.
“It is the dilemma of our times now,” Anzelmo said of the way climatic changes are fueling fires.
The challenge now is managing megafires to protect people’s safety.
In other areas of the West removing the build-up of fuels in a forest can help reduce the number of high-intensity, widely destructive fires, but that’s not the case for high-alpine lodgepole pine. Managing for more frequent, low-intensity fires to escape larger, high-intensity blazes is not going to work, Collins said.
“It’s either going to be a high severity crown fire or it’s not going to burn at all,” Collins said. “Our challenge then is to somehow allow that ecosystem process to function on the landscape and still protect those values that are out there.”
More stuff to burn
Campgrounds, lodges, homes and other improvements are increasingly butting up against forests. A 2015 study by the U.S. Forest Service reported about a third of U.S. homes are in or near forested land.
The number of homes being built in the wildland-urban interface grows each year, making it harder to manage wildfires.
Now, Norman said, “so much of the cost of fire suppression is dealing with the urban interface where people are building homes or have built homes along the interface between wildlands and developed areas.”
Managers of public lands see the need for fire on the landscape, but near people’s homes there is little political appetite for prescribed burns, fires set by firefighters to thin overgrown forests in areas prone to wildfire.
“We make a lot of our decisions on dealing with wildfires based on economic or political concerns without really considering safety and ecological concerns,” Kodas said. “We’re not really prioritizing managing, preventing, or making our communities more resilient to wildfire. We’re prioritizing maintaining our lifestyle.”
People have a complicated relationship with wildfires, Kodas said. From Bambi to Smokey Bear, the resounding narrative for decades was that fires were bad news, but it also has a deeper, contradictory symbolism, Kodas said.
“More than any other phenomenon we deal with, fire is so primal to the human experience,” Kodas said. “A lot of anthropologists think that fire is what made us human — that it allowed us to cook food and light the night and heat our caves and allowed us to get this big brain, and so we have a very complicated relationship with wildfire and a lot of that is based in mythology.”
In the years following 1988 the forests in Yellowstone grew back healthier than they were before the fires. One of the lasting lessons from the 1988 fire season in Yellowstone was the importance of fire for forest productivity and regrowth.
But that was not the story being told as the fires raged through the park in July and August 1988.
The news looked bad
The media portrayal of the 1988 wildfires in Yellowstone suggested the park was mismanaging the fires and allowing the iconic park to burn to the ground. While that was not true, it is a message that prevails even today.
Anzelmo and others, charged with informing the public about the fires, created maps by hand that detailed where the fires were burning and gave interviews to hundreds of reporters from all over the country that summer. They tried hard to get accurate information to the public, Anzelmo said.
“We did everything we could,” she said. Including, she joked, bringing in extra fax machines.
Because the majority of the fires were lightning-caused, the Park Service initially allowed them to burn, creating what became known in the media as a “let it burn” policy, allowing naturally ignited fires to run their natural course. That, Anzelmo said, was her biggest downfall. The term created the perception the Park Service was allowing the huge fires to overtake the park without doing anything to stop them.
So as the season progressed and smaller fires joined up with larger fires, the Park Service started fighting each fire as soon as it was discovered, Anzelmo said. The North Fork Fire, which became one of the largest burning fires in the park, was fought as soon as the Park Service spotted it.
The media portrayal of the fires painted a picture of catastrophe, that a national gem was being ruined forever. That narrative of wildfire as disaster is still a problem, Kodas said.
“As media, our immediate response is to see things as a threat, a danger, a disaster, and that’s really not necessarily very helpful in the case of wildfires,” he said. Even in the hottest burning fires, they create what’s called a fire mosaic: sections that burn very hot and kill the trees, and sections that burn very lightly within the same fire, so saying the whole forest is dying is inaccurate.
“We have thousands of wildfires every year, so to have this disaster language about something that is a natural process is more like if we had a disaster attitude toward every thunderstorm that rolls through,” Kodas said.
Instead of trying to stop the thunderstorms, communities across the country are being tasked with weathering the storm.
The cost of firefighting
The U.S. government today spends over $3 billion annually fighting wildfires. In the 1990s it spent on average less than $1 billion.
Research by Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research organization in Bozeman, Montana, shows the federal wildfire bill is only about 9 percent of the total cost of fighting wildfires. The rest is from long-term costs to the community such as lost business revenue, lost property tax revenue, costs from the decline in the mental and physical health of a community after it experiences a wildfire and costs from landscape rehabilitation, said Kelly Pohl, a researcher for Headwaters Economics.
Their research shows half of all those costs are paid for at the local level.
City planning that takes into account a community’s wildfire risk can help make the community more resilient, Pohl said. These strategies include mapping risks so access to water and roads are considered before new developments are built and constructing homes and buildings with wildfire in mind.
Build to not burn
Most homes burn down from embers that can jump miles ahead of a fire’s primary flames, Pohl said, so building roofs, decks and porches in fire-resistant materials can make a big difference. Wildfire also travels uphill, so decks pushed back from the edge of a sloping hill or built with gravel on the hill beneath them can also make a home less vulnerable.
People have chosen to live in areas where fire is a natural part of the ecosystem, Pohl said. Her group advocates building communities to be more resilient to fire, not trying to put them all out, she said.
“The landscape has adapted to live with fire, and so should we,” Pohl said.
In Yellowstone the summer of 1988 was a slog.
“I think a lot of people felt that the fire season was never going to end,” Anzelmo said.
Rain and snow finally fell in the park on Sept. 11, 1988, dampening the fires enough for firefighters to safely build fire lines and work on containing them. In the next week 8 inches of snow fell, dousing the flames and all-but containing the fires, doing in a week what 25,000 firefighters hadn’t been able to do all summer.
The extreme conditions of that summer are the new normal, Anzelmo said, forcing individuals and officials to ask hard questions about their responsibility for their own resiliency.
“It reinforces just how small we are as human beings on the planet and how powerful the forces of nature are,” she said.