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A Retrospective - Yellowstone 20 Years Later

When did the modern era in fire management begin? For much of the American public it began in the summer of 1988 when flames soared through Yellowstone day after day on their TV. The message broadcast by the fire community was that fire was a natural force of great majesty, that fire belonged in Yellowstone as much as wolves, that trying to suppress such a outburst of natural power was as misguided as fighting a hurricane. The forest would return. Yellowstone would renew itself. Yet the Yellowstone conflagration seems most significant in retrospect for what the orthodox narrative did not say and what it did not do. The received story did not address the ways the fires were the outcome of a long history of interaction between people and nature. The 1988 fires burned off in one season what would probably have burned over the course of a century, following the arrival of the U.S. Cavalry in 1886. The largest and most dramatic of the fires, the North Fork, started outside the park from human causes. Failed backfiring operations boosted significantly the final acreage and shape of the burns. Nor did the fires reform policy; that had been resolved 20 years earlier for the National Park Service. Rather than inaugurating a grand era of wilderness fire, the 1988 Götterdämmerung closed out that era, and allowed the problem of exurban fires to command center stage. The fires did affect practice, however, since every park and forest had to shut down fire programs and resubmit fire plans for review. This cold start delayed fire's presence nationally for several years, and in places, for decades. The fires' real ecological effects were off-site because understanding of the fires got routed through institutions. The deeper story, however, is one of missed opportunities. The official line defined the issue as whether free-burning fire belonged in Yellowstone or not. Of course it belonged. The real issue was how it belonged - by what means, at what costs, under what social compact. This never got discussed - was not allowed into the discourse. Instead, the ends, naturalness, determined the means available - eg, "natural" fires rather than prescribed fires. This might suit solipcistic Yellowstone but it has not well served the national fire community. We are still waiting for that robust discussion, the one Yellowstone should have prompted, and didn't. ———- Steve Pyne is the author of Tending Fire: Coping with America’s Wildland Fires. He is a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University.