The Great Yellowstone Fires of 1988 and the Controversy About the Treatment of Wildfires in the United States

Topics: Wildfire, Controlled burn, Yellowstone National Park Pages: 10 (2871 words) Published: March 11, 2012
The Great Yellowstone Fires of 1988 and the controversy about the treatment of wildfires in the United States


Introduction 1. The Great Yellowstone Fires of 1988 1.1. What caused the fires of 1988? 1.2. Development of the Fires 1.3. Fighting the Fires 1.4. Results of the Fires 2. Fire Management in Yellowstone 2.1. Fire Management before the Fires of 1988 2.2. Fire Management after the Fires of 1988 3. Fire Ecology 4. Prescribed Fire vs. Fire Suppression

5. Conclusion
6. Bibliography


1988 has been a shocking year for thousands of Americans. It was the year of a disastrously huge fire. Everywhere you looked you found burned trees. Tons of ash was lying on top of everything and the after effects can still be seen today in Yellowstone National Park.[1] What had happened? Why were the people in charge not able to prevent this devastation? Moreover, why are there some people that keep on saying that wildfire is something good?

1. The Great Yellowstone Fires of 1988

1.1. What caused the Fires of 1988?
All started out pretty normal. The spring of 1988 was wet until June where not hundred and eighty-one percent of the normal rainfall came down to earth like in May, but only twenty percent (the years before it had been an average of about sixty percent at the same time of the year). It was the driest summer in 112 years. Park managers and fire behavior specialists decided to allow about twenty fires caused by lightning. They based their decision on the fire management plan of the park, which existed since 1972. Everything went well and eleven of these fires burned themselves out. However, July was dry, too and the moisture content of grasses and small branches went as low as two or three, downed trees to seven percent, which is very low. On top of that were high winds that fanned flames extremely fast. The fire season began. [2]

In western America, much of the moisture from ocean storms falls on the coastal mountains. This has the effect that the areas east of the mountains are rather dry. Lightning often occurs without rain, which sets off fires. Coniferous forests with a high content of combustible resin and several ladder fuels like tall grasses, low branches and bushes enable the fires to reach even the canopy. These fires burn with extreme heat, which makes them very dangerous.[3]

1.2. Development of the Fires
As the situation grew worse, no new natural fires were allowed to burn while during one week the perimeter of the fire had doubled up to seventeen thousand acres. On July 15, the Secretary of the Interior suspended the natural fire program, and all fires were now fought. However, fighting such fires was something never done before. So-called “spotting” very often made many of the generally accepted firefighting techniques useless. Spotting stands for embers, which are carried by wind across parts of the forest that have not been burned yet. Because of this, new fires start up to one and a half miles from the original fire. This distance made every bulldozer line (cutting trees to take away fire’s ‘food’) useless and the fire jumped over roads, rivers and even Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon.[4] [5]

1.3. Fighting the Fires
Since the fire moved forward fast and the spotting was intensive, it was difficult, if not to say impossible, to make frontal attacks on it. This...
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