The Yellowstone fires of 1988 together formed the largest wildfire in the recorded history of the U.S.'s Yellowstone National Park. Starting as many smaller individual fires, the flames spread quickly out of control with increasing winds and drought and combined into one large conflagration, which burned for several months. The fires almost destroyed two major visitor destinations and, on September 8, 1988, the entire park was closed to all non-emergency personnel for the first time in its history. Only the arrival of cool and moist weather in the late autumn brought the fires to an end. A total of 793,880 acres (3,213 km2), or 36 percent of the park was affected by the wildfires.
Thousands of firefighters fought the fires, assisted by dozens of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft which were used for water and fire retardant drops. At the peak of the effort, over 9,000 firefighters were assigned to the park. With fires raging throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and other areas in the western United States, the staffing levels of the National Park Service and other land management agencies were inadequate to the situation. Over 4,000 U.S. military personnel were soon assisting in fire suppression efforts. The fire fighting effort cost $120 million ($240 million as of 2013). No firefighters died while fighting the fires in Yellowstone, though there were two fire-related deaths outside the park.
Before the late 1960s, fires were generally believed to be detrimental for parks and forests, and management policies were aimed at suppressing fires as quickly as possible. The beneficial ecological role of fire became better understood in the decades before 1988, and a policy of allowing natural fires to burn under controlled conditions had been highly successful in reducing the area lost annually to wildfires. However, by 1988, Yellowstone was overdue for a large fire, and, in the exceptionally dry summer, the many smaller "controlled" fires combined. The fires burned discontinuously, leaping from one patch to another, leaving intervening areas untouched. Large firestorms swept through some regions, burning everything in their paths. Tens of millions of trees and countless plants were killed by the wildfires, and some regions were left looking blackened and dead. However, more than half of the affected areas were burned by ground fires, which did less damage to hardier tree species. Not long after the fires ended, plant and tree species quickly reestablished themselves, and natural plant regeneration has been highly successful.
The Yellowstone fires of 1988 were unprecedented in the history of the National Park Service, and many questioned existing fire management policies. Media accounts of mismanagement were often sensational and inaccurate, sometimes wrongly reporting or implying that most of the park was being destroyed. While there were temporary declines in air quality during the fires, no adverse long-term health effects have been recorded in the ecosystem. Contrary to initial reports, few large mammals were killed by the fires, though there has been a reduction in the number of moose which has yet to rebound. Losses to structures were minimized by concentrating fire fighting efforts near major visitor areas, keeping property damage down to $3 million ($6 million as of 2013).
Read more about Yellowstone Fires Of 1988: Fire Management Policy Development, Contributing Factors of The Fires, Major Fires in Yellowstone in 1988, Fighting The Fires, Media Coverage, Fire Management Since 1988
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“Keep up the fires of thought, and all will go well.”
—Henry David Thoreau (18171862)