Inferno at Yellowstone

The wildfires at Yellowstone National Park during the summer of 1988 burned with a ferocity seldom seen before. There were actually eight fires, two started by humans, helped by nine storm fronts that brought lightning and high winds but no rain. Mature trees burned completely in 15-20 seconds, and firefighters watched "javelins of fire" jump over a mile as the blazes spread. Before the winter snows extinguished the last of the fires, some 740,000 of the park's 2.2 million acres had been burned.

Since then, more than 250 research experiments in the park have provided a lesson in ecological succession, the natural process of establishment or reestablishment of an ecosystem. The burned parts of Yellowstone are now going through several stages of recognizable, repeated patterns of change caused by this natural disturbance:

As wildfires rage each summer in our national parks and forests, many of the lessons on what to expect and how to manage them will have come from the Yellowstone fires of 1988.


Barker,Rocky.1996."Yellowstone Fires and their Legacy."

Robbins, Jim. 2001. "In Fires Afterglow, Nature Runs Its Course, for Good and Ill," New York Times, April 10, pp D1, D4.