Most Yellowstone National Park visitors appear to be obsessed with seeing and photographing a bear, with a secondary mission to see Old Faithful erupt.
My obsession is seeing recovery from the 1988 fires, which covered two-thirds of the park. They did not devastate the park, like many feared at the time, but opened the door for a more youthful forest.
The first fire began June 14, a month after I started as a Cheyenne, Wyo., daily newspaper editor who never had been to the world’s first national park.
My lungs still hurt when I recall the smoke that drifted southeast to Cheyenne, nearly 400 miles away. The colorful sunrises and sunsets, with light filtering through the smoke, remained etched in my mind.
Also, still in memory is the criticism that the National Park Service allowed the fires to burn, criticism as hot as the flames that affected more than 794,000 acres.
But the nine fires caused by humans and 42 caused by lightning did not devastate the park and surrounding area before snow that began on Sept. 11 doused the flames. In fact, as the park prepares to note the 25th anniversary of the fires next year, visitors see lots of young life.
Park rangers often tell visitors about a lodgepole pine cone. The trees that grow up to 160 feet tall were the most affected by the ’88 fires, and were aging.
Scientists discovered that their cones can open, and distribute seeds, only if heated to temperatures fires deliver. It has become apparent that fires are necessary to reinvigorate lodgepole stands.
As fires still roared, animals began moving into the burned areas that now provide easy access to food. Those areas’ younger plant growth remains an animal favorite.
The new-growth areas provide a great contrast from old to new. Plenty of photo opportunities exist to show how new growth, trees that may be 20 feet tall, now fills the burned areas. At the same time, dead trees remain standing, or clutter the ground like so many pick-up sticks, to show the contrast.
As Bob Barbee, Yellowstone superintendent during the fires said: “In spite of the tedium and inconvenience that accompanies living with forest fires, we are experiencing a renewal that will only improve the health of Yellowstone in the long run.”