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Three decades after North Fork blaze: Fire an agent of change and growth in Yellowstone National Park

Posted at 3:52 PM, Aug 01, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-01 17:52:54-04

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK – 30 years ago this summer Yellowstone National Park was changed by fire.

It was 1988 when 51 fires (9 human-caused) blackened nearly 790,000 acres of Yellowstone – roughly 36 percent of the park.

We recently visited an area burned by both the North Fork in 1988 and the Maple Fire in 2016 to see how Yellowstone’s forests have changed in the last 3 decades.

The largest, the North Fork Fire, was started by a cigarette.

“That fire in particular, at 410,000 acres, really changed the landscape of Yellowstone and really started laying the groundwork for how we manage fire now,” said John Cataldo, Yellowstone Fire Management Officer.

The North Fork Fire started outside the park near the West Entrance and burned almost to Mammoth.

“That was at the time, an unprecedented event in our recorded history,” Cataldo said. “While we can go through the tree ring data and the pollen record, and after the fact, realize that ‘88 was right on the mark in terms of what you might expect in this ecosystem.”

Lodgepole Pine makes up 80 percent of Yellowstone’s forests and the trees need fire to multiple – which hadn’t happened in the North Fork for a long time.

“It had most likely burned 400 or 500 years previously before 1988,” said Yellowstone Fire Ecologist, Becky Smith. “That’s how it evolved into what it was when it burned in 1988 because again it’s lodgepole and it requires fire to reproduce.

Lodgepole grows tall, but the North Fork Fire in 1988 and the Maple Fire in 2016 in the same area, both burned because of fuels on the ground.

The fuels combined with hot, dry conditions are a recipe for wildfire. 1988 brought all of that together and it’s because of the makeup of the forestland in Yellowstone, it will again.

“You’ve got open parks like we have in Cougar Meadow, we’ve got 300-year-old lodgepole and spruce-fir forest and so it’s this great mix that makes this landscape unique and it is all resilient,” Cataldo said. “It comes back at one speed or another, on its own pace.”

“Yes, this area will burn again, whether it’s in 10 years or 500 years,” added Smith. “I am confident that this area where we’re standing will burn again.”

The Maple Fire of 2016 was the first fire in the park to burn within the scar of the 1988 fires. The 1988 fires were the largest firefighting effort in the United States at that time.

Reporting by Chet Layman for MTN News