As the Rim Fire continues to advance across the northern reaches of Yosemite National Park, challenging firefighters, alarming onlookers and billowing clouds of smoke, it's hard not to recall perhaps the worst fire season ever to strike a national park, that of the dry, hot, and fiery summer of 1988 in Yellowstone National Park.
For months fires nicknamed Clover, Mist, Mink, Northfork, and Hellroaring raged, skipping through Yelllowstone's forest canopies and galloping across meadows, spitting embers more than a mile ahead of the flames to push the blazes forward with incredible speed.
While media attention is being showered on Yosemite due to the Rim Fire, so far it has burned a fraction of the landscape that the '88 fires did in sweeping across Yellowstone. Whereas the acreage of the Rim Fire on Sunday morning stood at 222,777 acres, in just one day during Yellowstone's 1988 fire season -- "Black Saturday," August 20 -- more than 150,000 acres burned. By the end of that fire season, nearly 800,000 acres of the park had been swept by flames.
Touching Media Nerves
What the Rim Fire has done, though, is touch a media nerve sensitized by recent fires in Arizona and Colorado that not only burned thousands of acres, but destroyed homes and, in the case of the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, killed 19 firefighters.
“I’ve been surprised by the amount of attention given the Yosemite fire. In fact, it’s a big fire, but we’ve had much bigger in the last 10 years. And why does it matter? It matters because it’s in a celebrity landscape, or at least part of it is, as Yellowstone was," says Stephen Pyne, an Arizona State University professor who specializes in both enviromental history as well as the history of wildfires.
“I mean, Yellowstone was a huge event, but it also was in a place that had a special interest to the American public. And because, I think, if you want to get public or political attention on fire, you have to burn a bunch of houses, kill people, or involve a celebrity," he continued during a telephone conversation last week. “And in this case (the Rim Fire), a celebrity landscape. I think part of the interest in the Yosemite fire is that the other two stimulants have already occurred this year: the Black Forest Fire started off (in June) burning a lot of houses in Colorado a year after the Waldo Canyon Fire (near Colorado Springs) and then the Yarnell Hill Fire wiped out a hotshot crew, and now we have this. So you have all three (elements)."
Yellowstone, which saw approximately 36 percent of its landscape burned by the 1988 fires, has endured wildfires of its own this summer, but not to the degree of the Rim Fire. The park's largest, the Alum Fire, has grown to cover just more than 7,000 acres since it was ignited by a lightning strike on August 13.
The comparitive lack of attention it has garnered, when placed next to the Rim Fire, can be attributed to both its smaller size and its current location away from park hotels and stores. With drier weather moving into Yellowstone's forecast Sunday, fire bosses were predicting a more active burning period for the Alum Fire and the prospect that a section of the Grand Loop Road might either be closed or require pilot vehicles between Canyon and Fishing Bridge.
If that fire balloons upwards in size, it could bring more media attention to Yellowstone; not because of the fire itself, but simply due to where it is burning, suggests Professor Pyne, who was a wildlands firefighter on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park for 15 seasons, from 1967 to 1981.
"As I’m looking at the statistics, it’s a sub-par year for numbers of fires and acres burned. Over the last decade, I think it’s the lowest number of fires and second-lowest for burned area," he said. “That may change, the season is still going, (but) it hasn’t been an off-the-scale year. What it has is it’s hitting all the sweet spots for media and public interest. I’m not dismissing that, I’m just saying I think that’s what accounts for it.
“There’s interest in Hetch Hetchy and the water supply and the power supply for San Francisco, so, OK, that’s a big event," Professor Pyne said. "But I think it’s just the public is bent on the edge of its seats. Each of these fires (Black Forest, Yarnell Hill, and the Rim Fire) have come right after another, and suddenly it's become relentless. And there are big fires burning in the Northern Rockies, and nobody was paying a great deal of attention. But when they go to Yosemite, they do."
According to statistics compiled by the National Interagency Fire Cache in Boise, Idaho, last year 67,774 wildfires touched 9.3 million acres. This year, 3.8 million acres have been burned so far by wildfires, the agency's statistics note.
Is Climate Change Fueling Fires?
While some media stories have invoked "climate change" as a key ingredient for the Rim Fire, something National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis did Saturday, telling the Los Angeles Times that the fire is "demonstrating the challenges that we in the land-management business are facing with climate change," Professor Pyne isn't so quick to agree.
“No, and I have to walk very carefully around the climate-change issue," he replied when asked if, ecologically, the conditions surrounding the Rim Fire were vastly different than those that existed in Yellowstone a quarter century ago. "I am not a climate change denier. It makes sense to me. I’m a long-time historian of fire. The fact that people change their combustion habits, and this is affecting the climate, makes a lot of sense to me.
"But these big fires that we’re seeing, very few of them are off the scale in terms of climate," he explained. "This is what conditions are always like in the Southwest at this time of year. There was enough drought that it was perfectly timed, but we’ve had similar events in my lifetime. So, climate change might be a part of it, but I don’t think it’s an adequate explanation.
“You would still have a fire problem if climate weren’t changing.”
At the University of California Berkeley, Dr. Scott Stephens agreed, but added that the Rim Fire likely would not have been as explosive if "fuels treatments" -- forest thinning and prescribed burns, for example -- had been applied to the forests.
"I believe that climate is drying out forests earlier and temps are up. However, if fuels treatments had been used in this area we would not have had the tree mortality that has occurred," Dr. Stephens, a professor of fire science at the school's Stephens Lab, wrote in an email. "I talked to the Groveland District about two months ago and they had two completed fuels projects ready to go in the Rim Fire area but no funds to implement them.
"My view is unless we get ahead of the fuels/restoration problem in forests that once experienced frequent fire, wildfires influenced by climate change will burn them at severities and spatial scales that will not conserve forests into the future," he added. "The Rim Fire is now burning into areas of Yosemite National Park that have had several past managed wildfires. I believe these past fires will have a big influence on the Rim Fire, and if the previous area has been burned in 10 or less years, the fire will go out on its own. I expect this will be the case in the northwest section of Yosemite that is impacted by the Rim Fire."
With September having arrived, the fire season is nearing its end. In some cases, as was the situation with Yellowstone back in 1988, it will be fall's coming rains and snows, not firefighters, that will douse many of the flames. In the months ahead, debate no doubt will continue over the role of climate change in Western fires, as well as what can be done to blunt wildfire, and even the role of wildfire.
“In some ways I’m happy for the attention, because fire needs a lot more serious attention. The trick is to segue from the, 'Oh my gosh, wow, another big fire,' to ‘OK, what can we do about this?’" said Professor Pyne. "None of the issues raised in these fires is new. They’ve been around for decades.
"... “I worry that the fire story is going to be hijacked by the climate change story. It looks like it is. And I don’t accept that," he said. "It’s certainly a contributor, but we would still have a serious fire problem under the old climatic system with everything else that’s going on.”