Wyoming June 22, 2019
The Devastating Natural Disaster That Changed Wyoming Forever
Anyone living in the western United States remembers 1988 — the devastating year of the Yellowstone Fires. Throughout the west, more than 72,000 fires burned that year, with 300 major fires destroying some of the country’s most breathtaking landscape. None of these fires were nearly as impactful as the Yellowstone Fire — and from August through September, the world was watching Wyoming.
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The Yellowstone Fires began in July, after a particularly dry start to the summer that had everyone in the West concerned about fires.
By Mid-July, fire suppression efforts had started, and more than 100,000 acres had burned in small fires throughout the park. Seven major fires were responsible for most of the damage. The Shoshone fire was started by lightning on June 23 and was the largest in a series of fires near the Snake and Yellowstone River. The Red fire started on July 1st and threatened the Grant Village complex — making it the first serious fire to threaten property. The Mink Fire threatened private property and was driven into the forest where it was monitored and allowed to burn. The third largest fire, the Huck fire, began when a tree fell into a telephone pole. The Huck fire primarily burned south of the park. The Clover Mist fire was one of the hardest to fight, as it raced through the rugged Absaroka Mountains. It threatened the town of Cooke City, Montana for weeks. The Storm Creek fire raged above the park for weeks and made a sudden, drastic push towards the park in late August. The terrifying Hellroaring fire was started by an unattended campfire and threatened the Tower Junction region of the park. The smaller Fan fire was the easiest to contain, though it burned for months. The largest of all fires, the North Fork fire, famously threatened the Old Faithful complex, Norris Junction, and the Canyon area.
The darkest day in Yellowstone history was Black Saturday — August 20, 1988.
More than 150,000 acres were engulfed by flames in that one single day — burning more land than all other previous fires in the park's history, combined. Ground fires became crown fires, burning at more than 200 feet in the air. The wind caused flames to jump established firelines, wiping away days of effort and sending smoke as far away as Billings, Montana.
Just a few weeks later, on September 8, 1988, fire danger caused the park to close to all non-essential staff for the very first time in history. Only the cold, wet fall weather in late September, October, and November helped finally extinguish these devastating fires for good.
Thanks to the efforts of thousands of firefighters, most of the park's famous structures were saved.
More than 9,000 firefighters were assigned to the park at once, and they were helped by dozens of helicopters and aircraft. More than 4,000 members of the US Military assisted the efforts as well, and a total of 25,000 firefighters assisted the efforts at some point. $120 million was spent fighting these devastating blazes, but there was only about $3 million in property damage thanks to their around-the-clock work.
Sensationalist media reports questioned the park's fire management practices as the blazes burned and spread out of control. All of America has its eyes on Wyoming.
At the time, Yellowstone was following up-to-date fire management practices by allowing smaller, natural fires to burn in an effort to keep the park's natural ecosystem in place. After the massive Yellowstone Fires of 1988, research was conducted that changed fire management in the park significantly. Although smaller, natural fires are still allowed to burn, they are monitored closely and suppressed if they exceed parameters regarding size, weather, and potential danger.
The most famous structures in the park were heavily staffed and monitored by firefighters, and the effort paid off. Though there are more than 400 structures in the Old Faithful area, only 19 were destroyed.
Of those 19, 12 were small housing units that were quick and cheap to replace. Though more than a third of the park was affected, only 67 of the park's 1,000 structures had to be rebuilt.
Wildlife throughout the park was affected, though only a few large mammals were killed by the fires.
Many moose did flee the area, and the number has yet to rebound, more than 30 years since the inferno.
By the time the smoke cleared - months from the first flames — more than 250 fires had burned over 793,880 acres of land. More than 35% of the entire park was affected.
The firefighting effort concentrated on saving life and property and tried to let the natural wildfires burn under control. Every single visitor's center was evacuated at least once during the fires, and many campgrounds were heavily damaged.
Today, you can still see the scars on the landscape. Dead snags are still found throughout the park, standing tall above a thriving understory of young lodgepole pines.
The tall, dead trees tower above the fresh, new undergrowth — a stark and chilling reminder of the brutal history of Wyoming's most significant wonder.
Do you remember watching western Wyoming burn? Share with us your memory of Wyoming’s most devastating disaster in the comments below.