The Wildfire That Burned Yellowstone and Set Off a Media Firestorm | Retro Report

The Wildfire That Burned Yellowstone and Set Off a Media Firestorm | Retro Report


At least two people are dead, hundreds of
homes have been evacuated. Every year, the U.S. experiences an average
of 72,000 wildfires, and they’re becoming larger and more destructive. The fire has burned more than 50,000 acres
and destroyed more than 150 structures. Increasingly, wildfires affect populated areas. But 30 years ago, it was a huge fire in the
wilderness that stoked media attention and a political controversy. Part of our national heritage is under threat
and on fire tonight. In the summer of 1988, wildfires burned through
nearly a third of Yellowstone National Park. Our oldest national park is under siege tonight. …the President to declare Yellowstone National
Park a national disaster area… Robert Barbee, the superintendent
of Yellowstone, saw nothing ominous when lightning ignited a series of fires in June. It was just the beginning of another fire
season. We were gratified at first. We thought well, you know, fire needs to be
brought back into the system. And so little fires began to spring up. Since 1972, the Park Service had allowed naturally-caused fires to burn out on their own. There was a confidence in the natural resource
area, that we knew what to expect, and we knew what we were doing when we got a fire. That confidence was built on computer models,
constructed from years of data that precisely told park officials when to let natural fires
burn, and when to put them out. But by mid-July, park officials realized the
fires were not burning as predicted, but spreading at an astonishing rate. All the models that had existed prior to 1988
went out the window in 1988. The fire just went right through everything. Those fires were moving at a speed that was
unprecedented. And it’s scary. On July 21st, Barbee changed tactics and gave
the order to fight every fire. But the decision did little to slow the flames
as firefighters were overwhelmed. By July 27th, the fires had devoured nearly
100,000 acres – more than double the total acreage burned in Yellowstone since 1972. And the story became national news. The flames of July. Eleven fires are now burning in this two million
acre park. …and they’re being called the worst fires
in the park has ever seen. Hi, I’m Don Hodel. President Reagan sent in his Secretary of
the Interior Donald Hodel. Any fires that start now are subject to being
fought. When a crisis gets big enough the President
of the United States has to show that he cares about it. Now, I couldn’t do anything about the fire. The President couldn’t do anything about
the fire. But if the President hadn’t been briefed
on it, it would’ve been easy for his critics to say well he doesn’t care about the
fire.’ Well, it’s not true. So there was a photo op, and he did what the
president was expected to do in that kind of a crisis. The nation watched as fires continued to burn,
impervious to the hundreds of firefighters now at the park, digging firelines, setting
backfires, and strafing flaming forests with retardant. Virtually every spark that blew ahead of the
fire started another fire. So we couldn’t put firefighters out in front
of it, all you could do was bombard it from the air. People don’t really understand the nature
of wildfire. Even people that live nearby. They do after they’ve been through it a
time or two. I mean, it’s a tremendous force. And it’s like well why don’t you just
put it out? Well why don’t you just stop the hurricane
or the tornado? You don’t just put it out. After fierce winds fanned the flames and burned
168,000 acres on August 20th, Superintendent Barbee became the public face the park’s biggest disaster. Yellowstone Park Superintendent Bob Barbee
denies fire crews waited too long. There’s absolutely nothing humanly possible
that could’ve been done. Someone has to be the target, and specifically
yours truly was the target. I kept hoping maybe Gaddafi would do something
outrageous, but he didn’t. So they all came to Yellowstone. The fires have destroyed 1 million acres in
and around the park. These are the worst wildfires in the Yellowstone
are in this century. The assault on park officials picked up in
early September, when the fires bore down on a national icon, the Old Faithful Inn. There are a lot of angry people who believe
that the National Park Service is responsible, that it let the fires burn too freely for
too long. President Reagan moved to deal with a firestorm of protest over his administration’s Let It Burn policy. Area rangers said the Let It Burn attitude
makes no sense… Somehow the media coined the term Let It Burn. That’s not our term. That was not our term. It was their term, the flawed policy that
the National Park Service rode to hell. The flood of pictures and reports told a convincing
story. But that tale was incomplete, according to
Conrad Smith, who studied the coverage. It showed little understanding of the park’s
natural fire policy. The policy got almost no coverage except being
mentioned in passing as the Let It Burn, policy implying that the Park Service, like Nero,
fiddled while the park burned down. American fire policy doesn’t lend itself
to sound bites because of its long and complicated history. After the Big Burn of 1910 destroyed some
3 million acres across the Northwest, federal officials suppressed every fire as soon as
it started, and eventually drove that idea home with one cuddly little bear. With a Ranger’s hat and shovel
and a pair of dungarees, you will find him in the forest
always sniffin’ at the breeze. Smokey Bear’s message on fire prevention
resonated with the public – while tons of underbrush quietly piled up across the country’s national parks, setting the stage for huge fires. To reduce the dangerous buildup, park officials
shifted tactics in 1972 to let naturally-caused fires burn themselves out, but by 1988, only
about 30,000 acres of the 2.2 million-acre park had burned. Every year the area in the park that’s not
burned adds the equivalent of 300 gallons of gasoline per acre. That left tons of underbrush in Yellowstone
untouched and, after an extremely dry summer, highly flammable. When you get all those variables, and then
you get the wind, and it happens rarely, but it’s the perfect storm. After three months, the Yellowstone fires
ended as they began, with an act of nature. What an army of firefighters, hundreds of aircraft and $120 million couldn’t do, a quarter inch of snow did, on September 11th. Throughout the summer of 1988, a recurring
theme in the Yellowstone coverage was that the park was gone forever. This is what’s left of Yellowstone tonight. They keep telling me it’s history but I
would rather see it as it was. But no sooner were the fires out, than the
coverage shifted to a more upbeat note. The wondrous process of renewal there, has
already begun. It’s all here. It’s alive and well. Now a new season is at hand. The first fragile signs of new life amid the
ashes of last year’s Yellowstone fires. Buttercups, Mountain Dandelions, and a newborn
bison calf. But the reported surprise of the park’s
rebirth was hardly news to park officials like Varley, who understood what was happening
even as the fires raged during that long, hot summer. We knew from all of the studies that there
was nothing to fear ecologically from fire. Every plant had a strategy built into its
genetics to help it survive. The most famous of course is the lodgepole
pine, which has these wonderful cones that require fire to open them. And when 80% of the park is lodgepole pine,
then you can conclude that it’s been putting up with fire for millennia. In many ways, the 1988 fires ushered in the
modern era of fire management as they dramatized that fire belonged in Yellowstone – and in
any forest – just like the trees, streams, and bison. Indeed, letting some fires burn is absolutely
crucial to reducing the threat of wildfires. But, today, the explosion of house building
in wilderness areas in the west has created a whole new set of challenges. Letting some fires burn is not an option near
populated areas. That allows underbrush to build up – one factor
that has made the spread of wildfires once again a summer staple on the evening news. The Thomas Fire, the biggest in California
history. Right now, 150 homes are under evacuation
orders today Finding solutions to reduce wildfires, while
accommodating people, homes and recreational places, won’t be easy. … nerves are wearing thin for residents
anxious to see if their homes are still standing. It has been an emotional 24 hours for communities
in the North Bay as families watch their belongings turn to ash. In Yellowstone it will take two to three hundred
years for the lodgepole pine trees to grow back to their full height. Meanwhile, the park’s fire policy is virtually
the same as it was in 1988: naturally-caused fires are allowed to burn, so long as they
don’t threaten lives or property. The park still relies on computer models but
they are considerably more robust. They can run a variety of scenarios in much
shorter time. Fire’s important. It is as important as sunshine and rain, and
the forest ensemble that is present in the greater Yellowstone is there not in spite
of fire but because of fire.

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