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Yellowstone Fire 20th Anniversary

The Yellowstone fires that burned more than a million acres in and around the park in 1988 were the signal fires of a new world. 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 human civilization's dependence on fossil fuels. The 1988 fires also signaled that our world was getting dryer 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 alone, the Soil Conservation Service estimated 12 million acres were 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. Twenty years later, years like 1988 are the norm and even former climate change skeptics acknowledge today the climate is changing and has been changing. In 2006, 9.5 million acres burned followed by 9.3 million acres in 2007. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its 2,500 scientists from around the world have concluded: "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 then blew up into conflagrations like firefighters had not seen since August 20-21 in 1910. On Black Saturday, August 20, 1988, 165,000 acres burned inside Yellowstone. A friend flying over it in a air plane said the convection clouds rising into the stratosphere from the firestorms that were creating their own weather made it appear that Yellowstone was under nuclear attack. I got caught myself 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, creating gale force winds and a noise like dozens of locomotives or a covey of jets flying over our heads. The fire forced me to run for my life to the relatively safety of the parking lot in front of the historic log Old Faithful Inn. But scientists say we can't hide from the effects of climate change on our forests. A team of scientists headed by forest engineer Anthony Westerling of the University of California-Merced released a landmark study in 2007 that says we are experiencing longer fire seasons, larger fires and more big fires because of climate change. The effects of climate change even overwhelmed decades of fire suppression and the build-up of fuel it created. Now with firefighters putting out 98 percent of the fires that start, fire seasons continue get bigger. The Bush Administration has instituted policies that recognize fire belongs on the landscape. They are telling firefighters to let some fires burn, carefully monitored not only for the health of the forest but also to save taxpayer money. But fire now costs the Forest Service half of its budget and it has to rob from recreation and forest thinning projects to pay for fire. The House passed a bill this week to address the problem. It's answer: More money for fire suppression. ---------- Rocky Barker is the author of Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and environmental reporter for the Idaho Statesman.