Wildland Fire Education and Outreach Case Studies
Flames of Controversy: Interpreting the Yellowstone Fires of 1988

Naturally caused fires have occurred in the Yellowstone area for as long as there has been vegetation to burn. Ecologically, fire, climate, erosion, and a vast assortment of life forms ranging from microbes to insects to mammals, including humans, have all played roles in the creation of Yellowstone's vegetative landscape. Ecologists have known for many years that wildland fire is essential to the evolution of this natural setting. Recent data have revealed that on the park's northern range, major fires historically occurred one to four times a century; in the rest of the park's subalpine forests, the intervals between major fires ranged from 200 to 400 years.

Following Yellowstone's establishment as the world's first national park in 1872, all fires were suppressed regardless of origin or location, a practice that was common for decades. It wasn't until the 1960s and 70s that scientists and resource managers began to understand the role that natural fire plays in Yellowstone. At this point, lightning–caused fires in Yellowstone's vast wilderness were allowed to burn. Most of these fires were extinguished by rain or simply burned themselves out at natural firebreaks such as rivers and canyons.

However, in 1988, Yellowstone's fire season grew to the scale of those infrequent but massive fires recorded in the rings of ancient trees. Several individual fires grew into one huge conflagration that became the largest in the park's recorded history and is now considered one of the most important events to have taken place in the National Park System. That year almost no rainfall was recorded during the months of June, July, and August. As would normally occur, several small fires were started by lightning. However, a series of unusually high winds, associated with dry weather fronts, fanned these fires into a wall of flames that moved with great speed and intensity. By the last week of September, over $120,000,000 had been spent in control efforts. More than 9,000 firefighters (including Army and Marine units), more than 100 fire engines, and dozens of helicopters from many states had participated in the largest firefighting effort ever undertaken in the United States. Within Yellowstone's boundary, 793,880 acres or 36 percent of the park's total acreage was affected to one extent or another by fire (although it is important to note that these figures do not represent total devastation within the perimeter of the burned area).

The Yellowstone fires (which actually encompassed lands beyond park boundaries) received more national attention than any other event in the history of the National Park Service. Unfortunately, many of the media reports were inaccurate or misleading, and no topic caused more confusion in the public's mind than the actual extent of the fires. Reports often oversimplified events or failed to convey the complexity of what was happening at any given moment. Public reaction was intense and often hostile. The fires were fought both on the front lines and on phone lines, as park offices were swamped with calls from concerned visitors, people offering to help, and people with a wide range of ideas about how to put out the fires. As the first winter snowfall finally put out the last fire, park interpretive staff faced the enormous challenge of explaining just what had happened. Looming as well was the prospect of interpreting post–fire research, as several dozen monitoring and scientific projects began almost immediately.

Underlying these challenges were widespread cultural attitudes toward fire and an almost primal–level emotional response to the television–generated images of burning forests. People have been taught that fire is always bad, and the "Smokey Bear" campaigns initiated in the 1950s and still used today have effectively reinforced these attitudes. Because the science of wildland fires had not previously been covered to any great extent in either print or electronic media, it was vital to distinguish between fires affecting human development, fires started by careless humans, and the role played by naturally caused fires in wilderness settings. It was one thing to appeal to people on an intellectual level, and quite another to deal with the overwhelming emotions of many park lovers who thought that Yellowstone had been destroyed forever.

During the winter and spring months of 1988–89, options for interpreting the fires of 1988 were quickly evaluated with regard to cost, developmental timelines, and effectiveness in reaching a wide and diverse audience both inside and outside the park. Though many projects or programs held great potential, time and sheer workload forced quick decisions. Dozens of ideas for exhibits, publications, and special interpretive programs were quickly narrowed down to a workable few, and staff proceeded on compressed timelines to get as many of these projects as possible completed for the visitor season of 1989.

Visitor Center Exhibit at Grant Village

Because visitor centers are focal points for visitor contacts in Yellowstone, a major exhibit at one park facility was needed. The logical location was the Grant Village Visitor Center, which at the time contained no permanent exhibits. With the assistance of exhibit planners and designers from the National Park Service's Interpretive Design Center at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, exhibits incorporating objects from firefighting efforts as well as interactive displays were developed and installed by early July 1989. This facility became the focal point where visitors received the most comprehensive overview of what had happened during the fires of 1988. One year later, a film about the fires was added to the visitor center's media, completing the project.

Roadside Interpretation

Evidence of fire activity was visible (and remains visible today) from many park roads. A quick survey of conditions revealed that seven locations throughout the park demonstrated key aspects of fire behavior and post–fire ecological succession. These locations were targeted for wayside exhibit units, which were developed by park staff and installed by June 1989. This site–specific interpretation reached a broad spectrum of visitors and was an important method of providing immediate information. These exhibits were also designed to enhance the information provided in the special park newspaper supplement, described below.


A special full–color, four–page newspaper supplement was developed by interpretive specialists and distributed along with the basic park newspaper at all five entrances to Yellowstone. This publication offered succinct, easily read accounts of the history of fire in Yellowstone's ecosystems, an overview of the events of 1988, a summary of the most asked questions about the fires with answers updated as new information was received, and a look at the future of Yellowstone's forests, landscape, and wildlife. It proved so popular that revised editions were produced for the 1990 and 1991 seasons, and nearly a quarter million supplements were mailed out in response to written and phone inquiries. Ten years later, in 1998, another supplement was produced to update readers on post–fire research and changes in fire management policy.

A full–color brochure on fire's role in the ecology of the Northern Rockies was also produced and distributed by NPS units, several U.S. Forest Service offices, and a variety of state and local agencies.

Self–guiding Nature Trail

A new, fully accessible self–guiding nature trail was developed along the northern road corridor of Yellowstone in an area featuring a variety of vegetation types and different degrees of fire effects. Built with a combination of donations from individuals, schools, and corporations as well as park funds, its initial purpose was to provide children and families with an interactive experience in which to learn about fire's role in the park ecosystem. The trail is periodically updated to reflect new research data and further expand its focus in the entire ecosystem.

Interpretive "Fire Team"

By November of 1988, a team of three interpreters was assembled to develop illustrated programs about the fires for presentation to community groups throughout the region. Requests for such talks had already been received, but once they announced their availability they were in great demand. As might be expected, they encountered widely mixed opinions and reactions to their presentations. Communities in the region had experienced the fires more intimately than anywhere else in the country, and had also been exposed to the most intense and extended coverage of events. Consequently, opinions in support of or in opposition to park fire management policies were often at one end of the spectrum or the other.

Perhaps most importantly, visitors, neighbors, and the general public came to understand what had happened in Yellowstone in their own unique ways. Interpretation provided an important framework for the exchange of reactions, emotions, and ideas. However, only the passing of time and the fact that park visitation not only has not plummeted but set new records, eased fears and allowed people to see for themselves that Yellowstone has survived–and thrives.

burnt stump with new growth

For More Information:

Linda K. Young, Assistant Chief of Interpretation, Diane Chalfant, Chief of Interpretation
Planning and Media
Yellowstone National Park
P.O. Box 168
Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190

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