History and Culture

The Summer Yellowstone Burned. What Went Wrong in 1988?

“Three-hundred-sixty degrees around me, everything was on fire,” says Yellowstone's former historian, recalling Sept. 7, 1988, when a firestorm, which occur when large fires burn intensely enough that they create and sustain their own wind system, raged near the historic Old Faithful Inn.

Lee Whittlesey remembers the day that Yellowstone went up in smoke.

As a law enforcement ranger, Whittlesey was manning his post at a barricade to prevent curious park visitors from entering the fire lane near Old Faithful, despite the storm engulfing 100-foot tall lodgepole pines charging toward him.

“It just went boom, boom, boom, boom,” Whittlesey said of the fire as he remembered the experience for The Powell Tribune, adding that it sounded like 10 freight trains.

The Yellowstone Fires of 1988

These fires were historical for several reasons. First, they burned over 30 percent of the total acreage of the park, and second they marked a significant shift in the way Yellowstone fought fires. The New York Times revisited the Yellowstone fires of 1988 in a 12-minute documentary (below).

That summer turned out to be the driest on record, and coupled with considerable fuel, high winds, and much lightning without rain, fires were inevitable.

“No matter what we would have done, the conditions were such that there were going to be great fires in Yellowstone under any circumstances,” former Yellowstone superintendent Bob Barbee told National Public Radio during an interview on Aug. 29, 2008. “They were started by lightning, by outfitters, by woodcutters — we were a perfect setup to burn.”

The fires of 1988 quickly ate up hundreds of thousands of acres thanks to an extremely dry summer and high winds. The longstanding policy to allow natural fires to burn out on their own was reversed in 1988. That led to teams of firefighters being brought in and millions of dollars spent fighting the blaze. The “Let it Burn” policy, as the national media coined it, was widely blamed for the destruction and the park faced intense scrutiny as the park continued to burn.

In all, 1.2 million acres burned in the greater Yellowstone area, including 793,000 acres of the park’s 2,221,800 total. On the single worst day, Aug. 20, 2011, now known as “Black Saturday,” strong winds blew the flames across 150,000 acres.

Despite considerable manpower—more than 25,000 firefighters battled the blaze with as many as 9,000 fighting it at one time—the fires didn’t subside until Sept. 11, 1988, when the first snows helped to dampen the flames. Smoldering spots continued to burn until November.

Though so much acreage was burned and the landscape of the park severely altered, new growth quickly returned to the park and the natural healing process began again.

In 2011, a hiker walks on Yellowstone's Mallard Creek Trail showing signs of recovery after the fires of 1988. Photo by Crystal Sagan
In 2011, a hiker walks on Yellowstone’s Mallard Creek Trail showing signs of recovery after the fires of 1988.Crystal Sagan