Becky Smith, wildland fire ecologist for YNP and John Cataldo, wildland fire management officer for YNP, look for landmarks at the scene of the Maple Fire.Image icon Becky Smith, Wildland Fire Ecologist for YNP points out fire damage from the Maple fire of 2016.Hikers pass new forest, which has grown since the fires of 1988. The new growth stretches to the horizon.

Lessons after the smoke clears

What fires in Yellowstone teach us
“Landscaping a defensible perimeter near homes and outbuildings is particularly important in the Big Sky area because of the number of residences built in the forest interface. Should a large fire start near Big Sky, there may not be sufficient resources to save all homes and those with a defensible perimeter and proper siding and roofing stand a better chance of surviving a forest fire.”

On July 23, Yellowstone National Park hosted local press organizations to review and summarize information related to the huge YNP fires that occurred 30 years ago this summer. The day included a short hike from the Gneiss Creek Trailhead, which provided extensive views of the vibrant new forest that has appeared over the last 30 years in the burn area. Fire personnel also conducted a discussion near the YNP maintenance buildings at Madison Junction to explain current thinking with respect to developing a defensible perimeter for buildings located in fire prone areas.

     The fires of 1988 burned 793,880 acres of the park, about 36 percent of Yellowstone and a total of 1,668,712 acres in the greater Yellowstone area. At the beginning of the summer of 1988, Yellowstone was using a “let it burn” policy if fire did not threaten structures or park infrastructure. By July 21, 1988 the fires had become so large and severe that park fire managers began suppressing all fires. While the suppression effort saved the buildings in Yellowstone, the fires were only extinguished by the arrival of snow in mid-September that year.

     Present at the recent gathering were John Cataldo, Yellowstone wildland fire management officer and Becky Smith, the Yellowstone wildland fire ecologist. The hike included presentations by Cataldo and Smith at a location known as the Maple Fire, which occurred in 2016. The Maple Fire burned 51,550 acres and is significant because it occurred entirely within the burn area from 1988. 

     Fire officials had considered the 1988 burn areas to be nearly fireproof because they are young forests with little dead timber. Studies are underway to determine why the Maple Fire occurred within the previously burned area. Understanding the Maple Fire is critical to future fire management decisions related to the burn area from 1988. Although the data is not yet complete, it could be that climate change has altered the fire behavior patterns in younger forests due to drier and warmer conditions for more of the spring and summer fire season.

     Cataldo also spoke to the importance of fire in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Fire has always existed on the landscape in Yellowstone and the plants in the forest have evolved to cope with fire. Cataldo detailed ways fire is essential for keeping the forests in Yellowstone healthy and vibrant. While many people felt the fires in 1988 were a catastrophe that permanently damaged the forests in the park, the result 30 years later shows the opposite effect. Some of the plots being studied since 1988 show thousands of new trees per acre and in one location there were about 40,000 new trees per acre. Smith said this new growth is created when fire causes the pine cones to pop open and spread seeds in the burned areas.

     At the Madison maintenance buildings, Cataldo and Smith showed the work done to create a defensive perimeter around structures in the park. Landscaping a defensible perimeter near homes and outbuildings is particularly important in the Big Sky area because of the number of residences built in the forest interface. Many resources exist online for homeowners to use in planning a defensible perimeter around their homes and the fire officials in Yellowstone urged all property owners in the area to do so. Should a large fire start near Big Sky, there may not be sufficient resources to save all homes and those with a defensible perimeter and proper siding and roofing stand a better chance of surviving a forest fire.

     Cataldo reviewed the status of the current fire season, which has been quiet. There only have been a couple of small fires in the park—one in the Hayden area and another near the Bacon Rind Trailhead. The fire danger in the park and surrounding national forest was recently upgraded to high, but Cataldo stated that they were expecting an average fire season.

     Of course, that could change if fuels continue to dry out and there is little rain for the remainder of the summer. 

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