Yellowstone fires still ignite controversy

  • Scorched Earth

  On Sept. 7, 1988, author Rocky Barker stood with a fellow journalist near Old Faithful and witnessed this scene: "Coals were pelting his back and I could see fist-sized firebrands by my head. We jumped a small stream and stumbled through the forest toward safety. The entire area turned black as night and the howling wind sounded like a jet engine … the forest we had just left ignited as if someone had lit a match to gasoline."

Barker was covering the fires for the Idaho Falls Post-Register, among other newspapers. Now, in his new book, Scorched Earth, he describes firsthand the chaos of the Yellowstone conflagration. He draws on archival research to reveal how the National Park Service’s fire policy — and fire policy throughout all federal and state agencies — has its roots in that park. For it was in Yellowstone that forest fire was first seen as a threat to the visitor experience, and it was there, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, that the federal government developed its militaristic approach to fire suppression.

As Barker’s story reaches the present, he juxtaposes the complexities of ecology and public policy by introducing Yellowstone fire ecologist Don Despain and then-Park Superintendent Bob Barbee. As millions of Americans watched the fires on TV news and the flames heated up, so did the political pressure on the leadership of Yellowstone and the National Park Service.

Now an environmental journalist for the Idaho Statesman and a contributor to High Country News Barker wields a steady and unbiased pen as he discusses the ongoing debate about the necessity of fire in forest ecosystems. Scorched Earth will likely be recognized as a seminal work in the West’s fire history — poignant historical analysis, told with a storyteller’s flair.

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