A quarter century after September snows extinguished the most widespread fires in Yellowstone National Park’s history, the regeneration of the park’s forests remains in its infancy.
The post-1988 forests are not recovered or more in balance, park ecologist Roy Rankin said. He doesn’t like to use anthropomorphic terms like good, bad, devastated or recovered. Fire is simply part of the natural cycle. And today, slowly in some places and quickly in others, the forests are growing back in.
“The forests are fine,” Rankin said. “They are still very young — they’re babies in the stand-regeneration process.
“That’ll continue for another 25 years, and then they’ll move into another phase,” he said.
The ‘88 blazes elevated the discussion about fire policy and educated the public about wildfire’s role in fire-adapted ecosystems. The forests that the fires — the North Fork, Fan, Hell Roaring, Storm Creek, Clover-Mist, Red, Snake Complex, Mink and Huck — left behind are not just younger, but more of a mosaic.
Twenty-five years later, signs of the fires, which affected 36 percent of the 2.2-million-acre park, abound. Branchless blackened trunks tower over meadows and young groves of pine. Fallen trunks litter much of the park’s burnt areas.
The fire scars will persist for years, Rankin said.
“That pattern will be evident on the landscape for, oh jeez, for a long time,” he said. “We’re at a point now where somebody can look at it and really not know what they’re looking at, but that pattern will be evident for 200 years.”
The fires of ‘88 caused little long-term damage to Yellowstone’s man-made infrastructure. They burned 67 buildings. Nobody died inside the park.