This year’s forest fire season put in perspective

The recent rain and snow showers have more or less brought an end to this year’s fire season in Montana. It was a fairly benign fire year across most of the state, with only a handful of significant fires igniting over the course of the summer and fall. The Observation, Copper King and Roaring Lion fires were among the most notable of the season, but even those were not exceptionally large in terms of acreage burned. Montanans can count themselves lucky that a warm spring and dry June didn’t lead to a significant number of major blazes. However, while most of the state breathed a sigh of relief, Yellowstone National Park burned.  

Over 60,000 acres of land burned inside the boundaries of Yellowstone this year, making it the most destructive fire season in the park since the legendary 1988 fire season. Of the 22 recorded forest fires in the park this year, 15 were the result of lightning and seven were human-caused.  However, of the 22 fires, just four accounted for the majority of the burned acreage: the Fawn, Maple, Buffalo and Central fires. The largest of these by far was the Maple fire, which burned some 45,000-acres in the West Yellowstone vicinity alone. The fire was monitored carefully and managed so that it would not damage the infrastructure in and around West Yellowstone, but ultimately the fire was allowed to run its course, as is a policy of the Park Service. And although the Maple Fire was big, it pales in comparison to the fires of 1988.

1988 was the single most destructive fire season that Yellowstone National Park has ever seen.  Ultimately, some 800,000 acres within the park burned that summer, accounting for 36 percent of the park’s total acreage. The burned trees left in the wake of “The Summer of Fire” can still be seen throughout the park today. The fires that summer began burning in June and early July, and ramped up towards the beginning of fall. By Sept. 7, nearly every road in the park was closed.  Martial Law was imposed in Cooke City and Silver Gate, and residents were forced to evacuate. Canyon and Grant Village also were evacuated, and firefighters prepared to make a final stand against the flames at the historic Old Faithful Inn. They ultimately managed to save the building from the blaze. When the winter snows finally extinguished the last pockets of flames that year, Yellowstone was a different place.

However, with the destructive force of the 1988 wildfires also came regrowth. The years immediately following 1988 were marked by lush plant growth, as new vegetation took advantage of the mineral-rich soil left in the forest fires’ wake. Aspen seedlings re-appeared in places they had never before been seen, elk browsed the burned pine bark stands and grizzlies foraged the lush new meadows. It was a brilliant display of the raw regenerative power of nature, and stood as a reminder of the important role fires play in western ecosystems. So, as the 2016 fire season comes to a close, it is vital to remember that fires have been and always will be a part of the landscape here. Although they can be fierce and destructive, fires also ensure that new life can take hold.