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Wandering the West

It hasn’t started yet, but pretty soon every newspaper, magazine and TV station will be trotting out 20th anniversary stories about the Yellowstone fires, so I may as well join in too.

It was hot and dry in the summer of ’88, and decades of fire fighting had left Yellowstone jammed with dead and dying lodgepole pines. They might have burned uneventfully in small fires over the years if we hadn’t been so obsessed with Smokey the Bear and snuffed out every little fire. Yellowstone had switched to a "natural fire policy" which allowed naturally started fires to burn on their own as long as park staff monitored them to make sure they didn’t get out of hand. But there was so much wood fuel built up that Yellowstone was a bomb waiting to go off.

July both natural lightning fires and man-caused fires were getting wild. An idiot woodcutter tossed a cigarette onto the ground, sparking the largest of all the fires, the North Fork Fire. All the dead wood fuel on the forest floor was causing radical fire behavior the pros had never seen before. Firefighters and even Army soldiers poured in to join the fight, but they never had a chance. The walls of flame were pushed by gale force winds. They were unstoppable.

By August, the Yellowstone fire was big news, and the networks were leading their newscasts with it day after fire-filled day. Reporters who’d never seen forest fires kept saying Yellowstone was "destroyed" or "burned to the ground." It was overblown nonsense but sure made great headlines and news promos.

The truth is that fire jumps around. Flames will hit a wet meadow and leave it alone. Windblown embers will jump out ahead of the main fire and start new fires a half mile forward. Fire ecologists call that a mosaic pattern and, even on the worst day, you could look out and see green forest bumping up against burned forest. In the end, less than a half of Yellowstone’s total acreage burned.

I still so vividly recall spending September 7 in the Old Faithful area, watching fire move ever closer. When it came over the ridge to the west, the flame wall was 200 feet high and the wind was 70 miles an hour. The noise was deafening, like a hundred locomotives roaring past me with horns blasting. My photographer and I were scared to death, with good reason. A sunny afternoon turned pitch black and the only light came from cigar-sized burning embers that pelted us. My government-issued fire-retardant pants were smoking and embers were burning through them. We seriously thought it was the end as we laid down in that parking lot trying to find breathable air. With nothing to burn on the asphalt, the fire roared around us and wind blew embers over the Old Faithful geyser basin and ignited the forest on the other side. It remains the most memorable and frightening hour of my life.

A mere four days later snow did what the massive firefighting force could not. The fire was knocked down then and there, although it continued smoldering into early winter.

Now you can easily see how a forest regenerates itself after fire. The pines drop pinecones called serotinous cones that spring open only when superheated by fire. So even as the ground was cooling, the forest was already reseeding itself. Twenty years later most of the trees killed by fire still stand as tall sticks while the ground around them is covered with the future forest. Ask foresters and they’ll tell you Yellowstone’s forests are far healthier now than they’ve been in decades. Take any drive on any road or walk any trail and you’ll see the regreening of Yellowstone.

There will be scientific papers and academic conferences this anniversary year. But all you need to know is that nature can take care of itself. The proof is everywhere you look in Yellowstone 2008.

Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.

THE VITALS:

Park City to South Entrance: 318 miles

Web site: http://www.nps.gov/yell

Insider tip: The most reliable wolf sightings are in Lamar Valley, but get there early or late as they bed down on hot summer days.


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