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The Year Yellowstone Burned: A Twenty-Five-Year Perspective

Author : Jeff Henry
Published : 2015-05-01

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a quarter-century since the massive fires burned through Yellowstone National Park that summer of 1988. Jeff Henry’s new book is a great look back at those smoke-filled days, especially for those at National Parks Traveler. I was on assignment for Flying Magazine covering the aircraft scene, and Editor Kurt Repanshek was there for The Associated Press. Henry’s words and photos hit home for both of us.

He of course reiterates the obvious; that Yellowstone has always had fire, will always have fire, and that the plateau has survived. In fact, fire is nature’s way of cleaning up after itself.

The narrative starts on June 30, 1988, when a number of fires were smoldering in the backcountry, and then follows the fire’s wrath day by day, accompanied by terrific maps that show the conflagration’s spread. There was the North Fork fire, the Mink, the Huck, and the Clover. Henry covers them all; how they started, how they grew, who was on the front lines, and how the flames were finally controlled by thousands of firefighters, and lots of ground and aerial machinery, and the weather.

Towering cumulus clouds formed above each fire, creating their own weather and lightning, which sparked new fires. Fire lines were overwhelmed by embers that flew far ahead of the flame front, easily jumping any man-made defenses.

Finally, on that fateful September 12th, a fast-moving, windy front brought a snowstorm that helped knock the fires down for good. In all, nearly 800,000 acres were affected by the fires; nearly 36 percent of the park.

Of course, I immediately turned to the page on September 8th. The morning briefings said that the North Fork fire would trickle its way slowly down through the woods towards the Old Faithful area, but then the howling winds started. Henry does a good job writing about what happened next, and what it was like to be there on the ground. (I remember huddling behind a stone wall at the visitor’s center as rolling-pin-size embers flew through the air—the very definition of a firestorm.)

You can feel the heat rising off of the 296 pages from his first-person accounts and photographs that document a unique time in Yellowstone’s history, and the people who were there. Here’s a history from someone on the ground, and in fact, on the front lines. He also documents the aftermath of the fires, which in some ways rejuvenated the landscape over the past 25 years. This is an historic document that is also a good read.

For more on the "fires of '88" in Yellowstone: Recalling Yellowstone National Park's Historic 1988 Fire Season

Comments

So a 12' regrowth in 25 years since devastation / picture on book cover


There's been _much_ greater regrowth in most of the area that burned in 1988. Very little lodgepole regeneration after more recent fires that were followed by dry years...


I remember going to Yellowstone end of May/early June 1989 and tourist were freaking out and pissed that "they" let Yellowstone burn. There were some talking about how it's a cycle but overall people were mad. Now for the most part it's like you can't even tell unless you know there was a fire and look for it.


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