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Know the West

The next fires will be anytime, all the time


The warm wind of July 14, 1988, signaled the beginning of a remarkable series of fires that burned into Americans' consciousness.

Before that day, the managers of Yellowstone National Park and nearby national forests were confident that their efforts to restore natural fire were a success. After that day, the concept of the natural would be changed forever.

Only the snows of November would put out the fires after they had burned through 1 million acres in and around Yellowstone. You might call the 1988 fires in Yellowstone and across the Northern Rockies "signal fires."

They signaled that we would live in a different world in the American West at the beginning of the 21st century. The fires and ecological processes we assumed were natural had already fallen under the influence of our civilization's dependence on fossil fuels. The 1988 fires also signaled that our world was getting drier and hotter. The drought that year across North America was the worst since the 1930s.

In the former Dust Bowl states from Montana to Nebraska, Kansas and Texas, farmers reported dark clouds of dust again as their topsoil blew away. By June 1, the Soil Conservation Service estimated that 12 million acres had already been damaged by wind erosion.

Record temperatures hit cities across the country. American companies sold 4 million air conditioners and could not keep up with demand. James Hansen, then an obscure NASA climatologist, warned Congress for the first time that there was clear evidence that greenhouse gases were increasing in the atmosphere and warming the globe.

Across the West, 6 million acres burned, the most since the federal agencies began keeping good records in 1960. Twenty years later, years like 1988 have become the norm. Even former climate change skeptics acknowledge today that the climate is changing and has been changing for a while.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its 2,500 scientists from around the world have concluded that "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal," and "'most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations."

I covered the fires of 1988, as they started small in May and June, and then blew up into conflagrations that firefighters hadn't seen since Aug. 20-21 in 1910. On what became known as Black Saturday, Aug. 20,1988, 165,000 acres burned inside Yellowstone. Denver Post reporter Jim Carrier, who flew over the park that day, said convection clouds rising into the stratosphere from the firestorms made it appear as if Yellowstone were under nuclear attack.

Carrier and I got caught in one of those firestorms at Old Faithful Sept. 7 along with more than 1,000 tourists, rangers, concession employees and firefighters. It was an incredible sight, with flames rising more than 200 feet in the air, firebrands as large as your fist blowing by your head, and the fire sucking oxygen into its core. The blaze created gale-force winds and a noise like dozens of locomotives or a squadron of jets flying over our heads. The fire forced Carrier and I to run for our lives to the relatively safety of the parking lot in front of the historic Old Faithful Inn.

Today, there is nowhere to hide from the effects of climate change. We are experiencing longer fire seasons, larger fires and more big fires because of climate change. A team of scientists, headed by forest engineer Anthony Westerling of the University of California-Merced, predicted last year that the forests will soon be burning up and releasing more greenhouse gases than they store.

Some say it has already happening. The debates of 1988 were about "'to burn or not to burn."' Few would argue today that fire should not be restored to forest ecosystems. But how do we do that in this warmer world?

Currently, firefighters put out 98 percent of fires, and fire seasons continue to get bigger. The public's demand to protect homes from fires has come to overwhelm all other public-land priorities. Seasons like 1988 happen annually now, and few consider these fires natural anymore. The world our grandchildren will live in will be dramatically different than the one we see today. In 1988, Jim Carrier and I were able to flee from the Yellowstone fires; in the future, there might be nowhere for people to run.


Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the environmental writer for IdahoStatesman.com in Boise, Idaho, and the author of Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America.