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Post-fire Yellowstone forests mending
Sep 9, 2013 - By Mike Koshmrl, For The Associated Press
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK -- 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. Another quarter-million acres burned outside park boundaries.
The fire scars will persist for years, he 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.
A tree cutter's discarded cigarette started the North Fork Fire, which burned 400,000 acres.
At peak staffing levels in July, there were 9,000 firefighters combatting the fires of Yellowstone. The effort cost more than $120 million.
The crews cut 802 miles of lines to try to control the blazes, but they had little effect. Had Yellowstone let the fires burn themselves out, Jehle said, the burn scars would have been largely the same. The fires jumped every major road and river system. Only Yellowstone Lake interrupted the flames.
The fires of '88 made Rankin a believer in the role of fire in forest health, he said. Even the areas of Yellowstone that burned the hottest were quick to bounce back, he said.
Rankin used a swath of forest that blew down in 1984 between Norris and Canyon as an example. With timber on the ground, fire burned hot in the area.
Some experts at the time, Rankin said, believed that the soil was too scorched and devoid of nutrients to allow for any regrowth for decades if not centuries.
"But it's coming back," Rankin said, "so much so that you can't even tell today that this area looked like the bottom of your barbecue 25 years ago."
"Tree densities are not as great," he said, "but you go in there and you look at the performance of the plant communities, and it's like these things ate their Wheaties. Trees that are now only 25 years old are 18 to 20 feet tall."
Editor's note: Mike Koshmrl writes for the Jackson Hole News and Guide