Copyright Rocky Barker, 2003

Yellowstone fires and their legacy

Chapter One

Fifteen years ago the Yellowstone National Park fires of 1988 began their mighty march through paradise, leaving much of the park in ashes and a debate over man and nature that continues today.

In 1993 in the Midwest flood waters from the muddy Mississippi and its tributaries inundated dozens of communities and thousands of acres of farmland prompting a new ideological argument centered on the control of nature. Neither debate is likely to be settled soon.

In both cases the forces of nature overtook all the predictions the best experts could muster. In both cases all the science, the money and will couldn't hold back the overwhelming elements. Yellowstone's fires started in June. In keeping with its natural burning policy, the National Park Service allowed the lightning-caused fires to burn until July 14, when the lack of moisture and high winds began turning small fires into raging firestorms, in one case trapping Chief Ranger Dan Sholly and other rangers inside a sea of flames. The worst fire in the history of the park had burned only 25,000 acres so fire experts were confident that none of the fires would burn much more than that.

Even two weeks later, when more than 200,000 acres of forests had burned in and around Yellowstone, the top fire experts in the country predicted that the fires would be brought under control when it rained or when the winds died down. But the rain didn't come until Sept. 11 and the winds kicked up like they had in no previous August. Eventually nearly 800,000 acres burned in the park.

After the fires were out, a federal panel looking at the fires concluded that the week of July 12 was probably the last, best chance firefighters had to bring the coming inferno under control. But that week few were counseling for the massive effort that may have been necessary to turn the tide. Faced with overwhelming criticism, Yellowstone officials and

the federal government as a whole decided to throw everything it could get its hands on to stop the fires. At the peak of the firefighting effort in early September more than 9,500

firefighters, including Army and Marine troops were battling Yellowstone's blazes.

We taxpayers paid $140 million to fight the fires of Yellowstone. Compare that to the park's annual budget of $20 million - so tight that in some years park rangers can't even collect entry fees most of the season. While some of that fire money helped protect the towns of West Yellowstone and Cooke City, much of it was simply protecting political turf. Fire pork if you will. In the end, a slight rain Sept. 11 halted the firestorms and snows in November ends the fires for good. Nature chose its own swan song.

Since 1927, the Army Corps of Engineers has spent more than $25 billion on an elaborate system of locks, levees, dams and dikes to bring the Mississippi and its tributaries under control.

They were designed to prevent flooding in the worst flood that had taken place in the last hundred years, a prediction similar to that of fire experts in Yellowstone.

In 1993 however, the combination of runoff and rains raised the rivers higher than ever in the recorded history of the river. The Corps of Engineers levee and dike system may even have made the flooding worst. The debates over the fires and the floods will continue into the millennia. Those who oppose Yellowstone's natural burning policy will say park officials should have stopped the fires immediately. Those who support it say it is ecologically beneficial. Conservative writer Micah Morrison, author of the book, "Fire in Paradise," went into his five-year investigation believing there was great scandal in the way the fires were allowed to burn. But in his book, while critical of the philosophy behind the natural burn policy, Morrison concludes the worst of the fires, the North Fork fire that was started by a woodcutter in Idaho, probably could not have been stopped.

Environmentalists push to turn the Mississippi back to a more natural flooding state, where the surrounding wetlands are used to soak up the rising waters, releasing them slowly and safely. Others called for even stronger, better engineered dikes and levees to preserve what has become one of the most important commerce routes in the nation. People will continue to build in the flood plain and every so often the nation's taxpayers will bail them out when all is lost. No matter what happens politically, socially, or culturally, the forces of nature will continue with only temporary deferral by man.

As I write this in May, the skies of Boise are filled with smoke, a smell, that triggers a momentary twinge of fear. The U.S. Forest Service is intentionally burning thousands of acres of the Boise National Forest this spring. They hope that by setting small fires under controlled conditions they can prevent a conflagration that would burn down hundreds of thousands of acres and turn the forest to brush. Safe in my back yard near the Boise River I have nothing to fear except the possibility the smoke will make my sinuses throb. But the odor takes me back to 5 p.m. Sept. 7, 1988 when the Yellowstone fires nearly caught me near Old Faithful. And the fires that burn this spring on the Boise and across the West are the legacy of the great debate that started that seminal season in American fire history. Scientists knew before 1988 that fire was a part of the natural rhythm of forests. But only a few recognized how fundamental fire was to the ecological health of forests. And foresters, steeped in the traditional view that they could grow a forest better than nature, still saw fires mostly as a threat. Yellowstone's fires, more than any other single event changed their world. Now federal agencies - led by many of the same men and women who retreated across Yellowstone that summer-plan to set as many as 3 million acres ablaze this year.

There remains a major debate over the national fire policy and forest management. But the lines of the debate have clearly changed. In 1988, A U.S. Forest Service supervisor who was quick to blame the Park Service's natural fire policy, bragged to me that his own bulldozer cut fire breaks and expansive clearcuts would stop any fire. The very next day the wind shifted to the east, carrying the fire across three bulldozer breaks and through clearcuts so huge they could be seen from space. Few forest firefighters would make such a claim today after the last decade where giant firestorms swept through the Boise National Forest, Oakland, Malibu and Storm King Mountain where 14 firefighters died in 1994. I too was humbled in Yellowstone. I had spent a month following the fires around the park, sleeping in my car and eating in fire camps. I witnessed some of the largest firestorms seen in this century by Sept. 7. It made me a little arrogant and just plain stupid.

 Most foresters have lost their arrogance in the face of such fires. But they still have faith that they can shape the forests' future with logging, thinning and fire. On the Boise National Forest, Ponderosa pine forests have grown tall and wide in park-like open stands. Fire naturally burned through these relatively dry areas in intervals from 10 to 30 years. clearing away all the younger trees and bushes before they could establish themselves. The tall pines would survive because of their thick, fire-resistant orange bark. When modern man entered the picture a century ago this natural balance was upset. The small, frequent fires that had cleared away the undergrowth were now fought with increasing efficiency. Loggers came in and harvested the larger, more desirable Ponderosa pines, leaving the white fir and Douglas fir. That left the forest ripe for giant fires. Beginning in 1989, a wave of huge fires started that has left hundreds of thousands of acres blackened. Before 1986 fires burned an average of 3,000 acres annually. Since then 63,000 - a 21-fold increase have burned annually. So foresters now want to burn 30,000 acres of forest a year in the spring until they restore the forest to its previous state and then let nature once again take its course. Similar programs have been proposed throughout the West.

 That means thousands of us who choose to live in Western cities like Boise for the high quality of life now have to breathe pollution more at home in Los Angeles for brief periods in the spring and the fall. And that's the rub. Foresters may recognize the positive effects of fire but the public remains skeptical. Add the smoke and an aggressive burning policy may be as hard to sustain as the illusion of our control over the forces of nature.