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The Big Blowout - a 30-year retrospective on the 1988 Yellowstone fires. An extract from To the Last Smoke, Vol. 3, The Northern Rockies

July 24, 2018

Tags: Fire history, Yellowstone fires 1988, Yellowstone National Park

Everyone agreed at the time that the fires of 1988 were a monumental event, not only for the Northern Rockies but for the nation; and that judgment has persisted. For years afterward the big burns were the pivot of conferences, training sessions, scientific studies, and fire cache chatter. Twenty years later they merited a retrospective conference. The fires were big news. They seemed a graphic demonstration of the fire revolution. They appeared to underscore a phase change in the relationship between Americans, their lands, and their fires. They were epochal.

But it was never clear what exactly they signified and why they mattered. Were they important because they changed American policy and practice, and made visible those reforms because they occurred at Yellowstone? Or were they a celebrity event, made important because they happened at a landscape with global cachet? Are they known today because they reshaped the American fire scene, or because, like celebrity itself, they are known for being known?
A box score of the fire season more or less speaks for itself. The region experienced 4,168 fires that burned 2,175,903 acres. On September 10 some 15,700 personnel were deployed against them, roughly 9,500 at Yellowstone. Air operations racked up 24,950 hours of flight time. Within the Greater Yellowstone Area 1,061,995 acres lay within fire perimeters, of which maybe 30-40% remained unburned. Estimated costs for the GYA fires begin at $120 million. Media coverage ran to untold numbers of words and film footage; by the end of July the fires had become a fixture of the national news, and remain so. Before the Yellowstone blowup a big western fire might get noticed typically for a night or two. Yellowstone, being Yellowstone, fire coverage went on night after night after night for over six weeks, the longest-running televised serial in American fire history. The climax, Black Saturday, 7 September, brought flames washing over Old Faithful and threatening developments laid down from the days when the U.S. cavalry ran the park.

The symbolism was overpowering, but it was also oddly indeterminate, as shape-shifting as the flames. It just was. The bust was destined to be politicized, an outcome worsened by an election year and photo ops. Out of its ashes reviews sprouted like Morrell mushrooms. Within the fire community discussion went on and on, rather like the newscasts, but for years. Unquestionably, the 1988 fires – the Yellowstone fires, as they became known in shorthand – were a big event. By most standards they were the biggest since 1910. To some minds they constituted a second Big Blowup.

In size and shock value that is likely true. And like the Great Fires of 1910 those of 1988 overwhelmed the system as the need to act blew over plans, ideals, preparations, and existing knowledge. Expert opinions about how the fire season would evolve and the probable final acreage burned went up in convective plumes unlike any the old fire dogs and new computer-equipped wizards had ever seen or could imagine. (On 1 August Dick Rothermel predicted that 200,000 acres would burn in the GYA. Don Despain announced that the fires would soon run out of fuel. They were off by a factor of five.) Nor could fire agencies any more control raging public opinions and social consequences than they could the flames, although they rallied around both the notion of fire’s restoration and the valor of the firefight that followed. After the Big Blowup, the dissenters were few. While Elers Koch might despair that the Forest Service had suffered a rout in 1910, most rangers and supporters of government-sponsored conservation followed the lead of Gus Silcox who argued that with more resources and better public support fire suppression could be made to work. So, after the Blowup of 1988, skeptics were brushed aside as an ill-informed sect. With renewed commitment the larger project of the fire revolution could succeed. The Yellowstone conflagration became, in fact, the squeaky wheel that brought a lot of grease to the National Park Service.

Enough time has passed that a more textured historical comparison is possible. After all, the outcomes to big events are known by their contexts, and those settings may evolve over several decades. It took 25 years for the aftershocks of the Big Blowup to make themselves felt. As we pass the 25th anniversary of the Yellowstone burns, it’s a good time to survey the setting for what the fires did and what they haven’t done. While a too-close reading hedges into historical astrology, consider the pre- and post-fire chronologies as parallel texts amenable to benign glossing.

A scan might look like this. The national forests began in 1891, and received an organic act in 1897. The Big Blowup occurred, respectively, 19 and 13 years later. The National Park Service adopted the Green Book for administering its natural areas in 1968, and Yellowstone fashioned its new-order fire plan in 1972, or 20 and 16 years, respectively, before the 1988 blowout. A year after the Great Fires of 1910, Congress passed the Weeks Act, which created the federal-state infrastructure for fire protection and Coert duBois published the precepts that would underlie Systematic Fire Protection in California, which would guide universal planning for fire protection. In the year following Yellowstone’s burns, an interagency committee both reaffirmed and rechartered federal fire policy, after which all of the public domain lands with natural fire programs had to reboot according to the new software over the next few years. The upshot of the Big Blowup, the 10 am policy, was promulgated in 1935, or 25 years later. The National Cohesive Strategy, intended to shape national fire policy, was scheduled for 2013, or 25 years after Yellowstone. If you want to argue that the Yellowstone fires had a catalytic impact comparable to the Great Fires of 1910, you can make a case.

Still, you don’t need allusions and comparative scenarios to identify the Yellowstone bust as a major moment in American fire history. The bust led directly to a review of federal policy, and brought fire into the radar screen of the Government Accountability Office. The evolution of a common federal policy as distinct from a collection of reforms among individual agencies came out of the ashes of the North Fork, Clover-Mist, and Wolf Lake complexes. To upgrade capabilities the National Park Service, in particular, received a boost in funds and attention that helped propel it into the vanguard of fire programs for the next decade. The Yellowstone fires diverted attention from the Canyon Creek fire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness that might have compromised the natural fire program of the Forest Service, and so granted the USFS some space for maneuvering.

Mostly, the fires brought home to the American public, as probably nothing else could, the significance and practical consequences of the fire revolution. The reformation meant that iconic places like Yellowstone would burn – would need to burn. A broad understanding followed and largely took root, like the mass postfire reseeding by lodgepole pine. The message propagated nationally, and internationally. The Yellowstone example stood as a global exemplar, for good or ill. Much as its convective columns spewed ash downwind, the fires sent images and information around the Earth through the plumes of TV, popular print, and technical journals.

Within a year it was clear that the revolution had withstood the test. Its message, if not the particulars of its policy, had passed through the flames. Twenty years later that conviction – that Yellowstone mattered – warranted a convocation of those concerned under the rubric of a Tall Timbers conference. There is good reason to believe that by 2038 historians will judge the Big Blowup of 1988 as an event of major stature, if not quite comparable to that of 1910. Yellowstone’s partisans, and they are many, would demand nothing less.

And yet the second Big Blowup was a lesser echo. The Great Fires of 1988 did not splice themselves into institutional DNA as those of 1910 did. When the Big Blowup struck, the Forest Service was an adolescent agency composed, as one member put it, almost wholly of young men. When the 1988 fires hit, Yellowstone had been a park for 116 years, had known fire protection for 102, and was overseen by an agency 72 years old. Nor was the NPS positioned in 1988 to influence national policy as the Forest Service was after 1910. The Yellowstone fires did not reform policy; they and did not instruct the fire community beyond the fact that it did not know as much about extreme fire as it thought and needed to engage the public better in its deliberations; they did not redirect the course of American fire history. Efforts went into defending the program, holding to what had been gained, not advancing it. Still, if the NPS could not use the Yellowstone fires to promote the future, it did not cave in to demands from the past. The firelines on the ground failed. Those in the mind, and in policy, held.

The big difference is that the Great Fires of 1988 did not have an Ed Pulaski to symbolize its terrors and resolve, or to codify its lessons in a tool. The Big Blowup invented the narrative of the wildland firefight, and adapted an inherited narrative of the conflagration as a disaster story. While commentators tried to apply both to Yellowstone, neither fit. Apologists for the park and for natural fire refused (rightly) to allow the disaster template to apply. The firefight narrative faltered because, despite an immense investment in personnel and equipment, it failed, save for shielding some structures. The grand difference between 1910 and 1988, in brief, is that the Big Blowup created an enduring narrative and the Big Blowout did not. It left the interpretation of the fires – so vast they just had to mean something – unresolved.
Except for that last thought, this quick panorama encapsulates the received standard wisdom of the American fire community. For a long time, however, I have resisted and withheld agreement. My reasons are personal. They stem from the summer of 1985 when, at the request of the Rocky Mountain regional office of the NPS, I wrote a draft fire plan for Yellowstone.

Over the two previous summers I had worked at Rocky Mountain National Park as a fire planner. I thought I was headed to Theodore Roosevelt National Park for 1985 when Jim Olson redirected me to Yellowstone. The park’s program did not meet national guidelines as codified in NPS-18, did not align with neighbors, and not a few observers outside Yellowstone regarded the place as an accident waiting to happen. Although Yellowstone National Park had size and glamour, it did not have an operational fire plan. I was there to coax one into being.

I found a park staffed with dedicated long-termers (homesteaders, in NPS parlance), a group tenaciously committed to the Yellowstone ideal as they understood it. They were also remarkably insular and self-referential and indifferent or hostile to outsiders. For that last sentiment I could hardly blame them. Still, Yellowstone did not have a fire plan; since 1972 it had a statement of philosophy that sought to encourage as much natural fire, which would mean crownfire, as fast as possible. (It was also clear that what underwrote the fire plan – and at times, everything else – was the enduring conundrum of elk.) My task was to translate that sentiment into formal language. I spent 10 weeks researching, exploring, and writing, and produced a set of documents, which I presented to Superintendent Bob Barbee and the park’s Fire Committee.

The final package had three items. One was a fire plan written according to the guidelines of NPS-18, the handbook for fire management. It offered a few novelties but mostly just filled in the blanks. The second was a slate of “recommendations for future actions.” The third was a prospectus for a Yellowstone Interagency Fire Management Center that would ground the park’s ambition to restore natural fire in an institution and make the Greater Yellowstone Area the centerpiece for natural fire everywhere. “It will seem odd for an observer to insist that Yellowstone take itself more seriously, rather than less so, but the opportunities for fire management are special, and Yellowstone, with all humility, should assume the burdens – not merely the status – of leadership.” The prospectus went nowhere (it had no champion, and so no chance). The recommendations gathered dust. The fire plan was hefty and formal enough to get the regional office and Branch of Fire Management off Yellowstone’s case, though the plan was never submitted for public review or even vetted through the agency. The park quietly excised all the checks and balances on the Fire Committee. None of plan's protocols that I had inserted per NPS-18 were followed during the 1988 season. I was not surprised by the outcomes. But my experience made me observe the season through a glass, darkly.

My objections were two. I thought the park, its apologists, and the American fire community overall missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to present the fire revolution to the American public in a way that went beyond name-calling and slogans. Instead, partisans fixated on the wrong question, which is to say, whether fire belonged in Yellowstone. That was easy: of course it belonged. Initially the media recycled the usual clichés about “destroyed” landscapes and the like, and politicians railed about ineptitude and government waste (it was an election year); but rather quickly that blather disappeared. The educable public learned and accepted. The fires were not an ecological catastrophe. To my calculations they burned off in one year what would have burned over the past hundred had not the park and Army-inspired fire protection not intervened. The official Yellowstone position was that firefighting had been ineffective against the crown fires that mattered. My reading was, the actions taken beginning with the cavalry in 1886 had stopped many ignitions before they became big and had virtually eliminated human ignitions altogether. Behind that distinction lay deeper assumptions about the ways Yellowstone was or was not a purely natural or a cultural landscape.

The brouhaha over fire ecology became an exercise in misdirection that prevented a much more important question from being asked, which was, how does fire belong? at what cost? with what methods? according to what social compact? The Big Blowup of 1988 was not the only way to restore fire. The park, however, refused any other kind – was adamantly opposed to prescribed burning as a violation of the park’s principles. Once the fires had swarmed over hundreds of thousands of acres nothing short of early snow could halt them. Whether or not the public was ready for that kind of discussion, the fire community should have been. In many ways, the community still yearns for it in a public forum.

And this was my second issue. The Yellowstone fire program, as I saw it, operated more as a personality cult. It had its own classification of fuels, apart from national standards. It dismissed National Fire-Danger Rating System models. It relied, rather, on the highly personal knowledge of its particular members. The implied assumption was, No one outside Yellowstone could know the Yellowstone scene, and Yellowstone knew all it needed to put fire back. It desperately wanted big fires. It was the flagship park, yet while others were actively accepting natural fires and kindling prescribed burns, Yellowstone’s fire program was a script that wasn’t being filmed. The only thing Yellowstone needed was ignition, drought, and wind: the park was so big that it could absorb whatever happened, both ecologically and politically. It didn’t need protocols and prescriptions. That sentiment proved almost true.

A fire plan, in my understanding, was not a nuisance but a social compact. It was an agreement that specified what the park could do and not do, and would recognize the limits of any proposed action when confronted with what nature in its power and majesty could concoct. Yellowstone’s view was that Yellowstone didn’t heed rules; it made them. Plans were for little parks. The 1985 fire plan, as submitted, operated under the notion that ignitions would be handled as prescribed natural fires, which is to say, as events under prescriptions and within boundaries, and with procedures to evaluate and if necessary intervene. Instead, the fires were let burns.

I thought the result was cynical. It reeked of bad faith. If the park didn’t like the constraints, it should protest and try to change them rather than ignore them, or use them as cover while it did what it wanted. I didn’t like that outcome and didn’t like that I had become by association an enabler of that deception and so didn’t like the fires. I was wrong. I should have been on the scene. I should have self-deployed. Instead I stayed home and wrote a fire history of Australia.
Enough time has passed that the size of the event has shrunk relative to newer blowups; some historical parallax is now possible; and with it, a few frames exist by which to measure and hang the event on history’s wall.

I have made my peace with Yellowstone. Whatever unease my personal experience instilled, I have a duty to assess the Yellowstone burns as a historical event, and I can only conclude that they were a point of inflection. They were not the only tipping point, or even the most significant, but the history of American fire would be different if they had not occurred. Had Yellowstone come out of its solipsism, had its partisans been more reflective, had the fire community been willing to criticize instead of instinctively circle its engines, had the fire been subject to thoughtful analysis by intellectuals other than scientists and journalists, Yellowstone might have become the hinge of the revolution. It might have given the revolution what it most needed, a narrative.

Instead, the era of wilderness fire succumbed to an era of the wildland-urban interface, a problem with little sense and less poetry. By its silence the fire community did not gain public acquiescence for the revolution. It denied the revolution its story, and with it, the better part of a decade while reforms retrenched. Instead, the torch of reform passed to the 1994 season in which there were fewer big fires but many deaths and a connection with the larger culture that went beyond celebrity. Yellowstone was big, but not, in the end, big enough.


  1. December 8, 2018 2:33 AM EST
    - aby