The Wildfire That Burned Yellowstone and Set Off a Media Firestorm | Retro Report

At least two people are dead, hundreds ofhomes have been evacuated.

Every year, the U.


experiences an averageof 72, 000 wildfires, and they’re becoming larger and more destructive.

The fire has burned more than 50, 000 acresand destroyed more than 150 structures.

Increasingly, wildfires affect populated areas.

But 30 years ago, it was a huge fire in thewilderness that stoked media attention and a political controversy.

Part of our national heritage is under threatand on fire tonight.

In the summer of 1988, wildfires burned throughnearly a third of Yellowstone National Park.

Our oldest national park is under siege tonight.

…the President to declare Yellowstone NationalPark a national disaster area… Robert Barbee, the superintendentof Yellowstone, saw nothing ominous when lightning ignited a series of fires in June.

It was just the beginning of another fireseason.

We were gratified at first.

We thought well, you know, fire needs to bebrought back into the system.

And so little fires began to spring up.

Since 1972, the Park Service had allowed naturally-caused fires to burn out on their own.

There was a confidence in the natural resourcearea, that we knew what to expect, and we knew what we were doing when we got a fire.

That confidence was built on computer models, constructed from years of data that precisely told park officials when to let natural firesburn, and when to put them out.

But by mid-July, park officials realized thefires were not burning as predicted, but spreading at an astonishing rate.

All the models that had existed prior to 1988went out the window in 1988.

The fire just went right through everything.

Those fires were moving at a speed that wasunprecedented.

And it’s scary.

On July 21st, Barbee changed tactics and gavethe order to fight every fire.

But the decision did little to slow the flamesas firefighters were overwhelmed.

By July 27th, the fires had devoured nearly100, 000 acres – more than double the total acreage burned in Yellowstone since 1972.

And the story became national news.

The flames of July.

Eleven fires are now burning in this two millionacre park.

…and they’re being called the worst firesin the park has ever seen.

Hi, I’m Don Hodel.

President Reagan sent in his Secretary ofthe Interior Donald Hodel.

Any fires that start now are subject to beingfought.

When a crisis gets big enough the Presidentof the United States has to show that he cares about it.

Now, I couldn’t do anything about the fire.

The President couldn’t do anything aboutthe fire.

But if the President hadn’t been briefedon it, it would’ve been easy for his critics to say well he doesn’t care about thefire.

’ Well, it’s not true.

So there was a photo op, and he did what thepresident was expected to do in that kind of a crisis.

The nation watched as fires continued to burn, impervious to the hundreds of firefighters now at the park, digging firelines, settingbackfires, and strafing flaming forests with retardant.

Virtually every spark that blew ahead of thefire started another fire.

So we couldn’t put firefighters out in frontof it, all you could do was bombard it from the air.

People don’t really understand the natureof wildfire.

Even people that live nearby.

They do after they’ve been through it atime or two.

I mean, it’s a tremendous force.

And it’s like well why don’t you justput it out? Well why don’t you just stop the hurricaneor the tornado? You don’t just put it out.

After fierce winds fanned the flames and burned168, 000 acres on August 20th, Superintendent Barbee became the public face the park’s biggest disaster.

Yellowstone Park Superintendent Bob Barbeedenies fire crews waited too long.

There’s absolutely nothing humanly possiblethat could’ve been done.

Someone has to be the target, and specificallyyours truly was the target.

I kept hoping maybe Gaddafi would do somethingoutrageous, but he didn’t.

So they all came to Yellowstone.

The fires have destroyed 1 million acres inand around the park.

These are the worst wildfires in the Yellowstoneare in this century.

The assault on park officials picked up inearly September, when the fires bore down on a national icon, the Old Faithful Inn.

There are a lot of angry people who believethat the National Park Service is responsible, that it let the fires burn too freely fortoo long.

President Reagan moved to deal with a firestorm of protest over his administration’s Let It Burn policy.

Area rangers said the Let It Burn attitudemakes no sense… Somehow the media coined the term Let It Burn.

That’s not our term.

That was not our term.

It was their term, the flawed policy thatthe National Park Service rode to hell.

The flood of pictures and reports told a convincingstory.

But that tale was incomplete, according toConrad Smith, who studied the coverage.

It showed little understanding of the park’snatural fire policy.

The policy got almost no coverage except beingmentioned in passing as the Let It Burn, policy implying that the Park Service, like Nero, fiddled while the park burned down.

American fire policy doesn’t lend itselfto sound bites because of its long and complicated history.

After the Big Burn of 1910 destroyed some3 million acres across the Northwest, federal officials suppressed every fire as soon asit started, and eventually drove that idea home with one cuddly little bear.

With a Ranger's hat and shoveland a pair of dungarees, you will find him in the forestalways sniffin' at the breeze.

Smokey Bear’s message on fire preventionresonated with the public – while tons of underbrush quietly piled up across the country’s national parks, setting the stage for huge fires.

To reduce the dangerous buildup, park officialsshifted tactics in 1972 to let naturally-caused fires burn themselves out, but by 1988, onlyabout 30, 000 acres of the 2.

2 million-acre park had burned.

Every year the area in the park that’s notburned adds the equivalent of 300 gallons of gasoline per acre.

That left tons of underbrush in Yellowstoneuntouched and, after an extremely dry summer, highly flammable.

When you get all those variables, and thenyou get the wind, and it happens rarely, but it’s the perfect storm.

After three months, the Yellowstone firesended as they began, with an act of nature.

What an army of firefighters, hundreds of aircraft and $120 million couldn’t do, a quarter inch of snow did, on September 11th.

Throughout the summer of 1988, a recurringtheme in the Yellowstone coverage was that the park was gone forever.

This is what’s left of Yellowstone tonight.

They keep telling me it’s history but Iwould rather see it as it was.

But no sooner were the fires out, than thecoverage shifted to a more upbeat note.

The wondrous process of renewal there, hasalready begun.

It’s all here.

It’s alive and well.

Now a new season is at hand.

The first fragile signs of new life amid theashes of last year’s Yellowstone fires.

Buttercups, Mountain Dandelions, and a newbornbison calf.

But the reported surprise of the park’srebirth was hardly news to park officials like Varley, who understood what was happeningeven as the fires raged during that long, hot summer.

We knew from all of the studies that therewas nothing to fear ecologically from fire.

Every plant had a strategy built into itsgenetics to help it survive.

The most famous of course is the lodgepolepine, which has these wonderful cones that require fire to open them.

And when 80% of the park is lodgepole pine, then you can conclude that it’s been putting up with fire for millennia.

In many ways, the 1988 fires ushered in themodern era of fire management as they dramatized that fire belonged in Yellowstone – and inany forest – just like the trees, streams, and bison.

Indeed, letting some fires burn is absolutelycrucial to reducing the threat of wildfires.

But, today, the explosion of house buildingin wilderness areas in the west has created a whole new set of challenges.

Letting some fires burn is not an option nearpopulated areas.

That allows underbrush to build up – one factorthat has made the spread of wildfires once again a summer staple on the evening news.

The Thomas Fire, the biggest in Californiahistory.

Right now, 150 homes are under evacuationorders today Finding solutions to reduce wildfires, whileaccommodating people, homes and recreational places, won’t be easy.

… nerves are wearing thin for residentsanxious to see if their homes are still standing.

It has been an emotional 24 hours for communitiesin the North Bay as families watch their belongings turn to ash.

In Yellowstone it will take two to three hundredyears for the lodgepole pine trees to grow back to their full height.

Meanwhile, the park’s fire policy is virtuallythe same as it was in 1988: naturally-caused fires are allowed to burn, so long as theydon’t threaten lives or property.

The park still relies on computer models butthey are considerably more robust.

They can run a variety of scenarios in muchshorter time.

Fire’s important.

It is as important as sunshine and rain, andthe forest ensemble that is present in the greater Yellowstone is there not in spiteof fire but because of fire.


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