Wildfires' size, scope bigger since Yellowstone blaze in 1988

Size and scope of wildfires has exploded since the Yellowstone blaze of 1988.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comAugust 18, 2013 

  • Online chat Tuesday

    Statesman Reporter Rocky Barker and National Park Service fire expert Dick Bahr will host a chat Tuesday from 10:30 a.m. to noon.

    Bahr was in charge of aviation operations in Yellowstone in 1988 and today serves as Fire Science and Ecology Program Leader for the National Park Service at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

    The chat coincides with the 25th anniversary of Black Saturday, the day 165,000 acres burned in Yellowstone. It also is the 103rd anniversary of the Big Blowup, when millions of acres burned in North Idaho and Montana in two days.

Boise residents watched the giant pyrocumulus cloud rise to the south Aug. 8, looking like a thunderhead moving in.

This huge meteorological phenomena had been seen rarely before 1988.

Dry unstable air and high winds turned the Yellowstone flames into a series of firestorms that burned more than 150,000 acres a day in late August and early September. But in the 25 years since, these fire-generated weather events have become commonplace across the West.

On Thursday, five columns rose above the Beaver Creek Fire on the edge of Ketchum, one of four fires southeast of Boise this summer that have displayed the extreme fire behavior.

In 13 of the past 25 years, more than 5 million acres of wild land has burned in the nation. In 2012, 2008 and 2007, more than 9 million acres were burned, and eight of the nine worst fire years since 1960 have taken place since 2000.

A generation of firefighters has been humbled, facing conditions their predecessors never imagined. The fires, driven by a warming climate, bountiful fuels and a growing population living on lands that once were wild, are reshaping the ecosystem and the human communities within.

Today, John Glenn is the Bureau of Land Management's director of operations at Boise's National Interagency Fire Center. When Glenn was fighting fires in Yellowstone in 1988, he and his colleagues were confident that, given enough resources, they could control any fire. His father and his grandfather had been wildland firefighters and, due in part to a wetter, cooler climate, they were able to stop all but a few fires from getting big.

But the series of fires that burned through nearly 2 million acres in and around Yellowstone in 1988 turned out to be a harbinger for Glenn's career. That summer, fire officials brought in 25,000 firefighters who, time after time, watched helplessly as the fire burned through fire lines, clearcuts and even across wide river canyons.

"At the time, it was a frustrating summer, because it seemed that everything we did didn't work," said David Poncin, a retired Forest Service fire manager in Grangeville who led teams that saved Grant Village and Canyon Village in Yellowstone in 1988.

In September 1988, a change in the weather reduced the flammability of the woods enough for the fires to be controlled. But they kept burning until the snow arrived in November.

A third of the 25 years since have been what Glenn calls busy fire seasons, when up to 25,000 firefighters have been brought in to fight the increasingly large fires. Fire seasons are starting earlier and ending later - an average of two and half months longer than they were in the 1970s. That means firefighters and their resources are spread thin, especially in a time of tight budgets.

But even if Glenn and his fellow fire bosses had more suppression assets available, he said, the outcomes would be largely the same.

"You can pour stuff on these fires and you're not going to get value out of those resources," Glenn said.

Not everyone is so sure.

Larry Cragwick, a retired teacher living in Salmon, suffered through weeks of smoke last year from the group of fires called the Mustang Complex. This year, the Lodgepole and Papoose fires are filling his valley with smoke nearly every evening.

He fought fire for the Forest Service as a young man and doesn't like how the agencies today back off large fires and allow thousands of acres to burn.

"I hate to see the waste of all that timber," he said.

THE GROWTH OF URBAN FIRE

As fire behavior has become more fierce and unpredictable, the number of people in harm's way has risen. Since the 1990s, 15 million to 17 million new homes have been built in dangerous fire zones, a federal report said.

That has led to huge disasters like the East Bay Fire in Oakland in 1991, where more than 3,500 homes, apartments and condos were destroyed in a firestorm. Fires in California in 2003 and 2007 burned through entire neighborhoods, destroying thousands of homes and displacing nearly a million people. Similar fires have burned in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Boise and Pocatello.

These wildland-urban fires are even more complex than those deep in the forest or range. Once a single house begins burning, it threatens surrounding homes and quickly overtakes firefighting resources.

A collaborative prevention program called "Firewise" and state and city codes have evolved in the years since Oakland's fire. The guidelines recommend that residents remove fuels such as dead grass and other fire-entry points, including cedar-shake roofs, that carry fire through communities like Fall Creek, which was burned over by the Elk Complex Fire north of Mountain Home just last week.

In communities like Colorado Springs and Pocatello, wildfires repeatedly find a way into urban neighborhoods. But Boise and Ada County have beefed up their codes to require residents to make homes safer after the Eighth Street Fire in 1996 and the Oregon Trail Fire in 2008.

"There are areas of the country that have had frequent enough fires that they've become resilient and adapted to it," said William Kaage, National Park Service fire director at NIFC. "They may not like it, but they are used to it."

A CHANGING NATURE STORY

After the 1988 fires, the nature story was about how quickly the forests regenerated and how the mostly lodgepole pine of Yellowstone thrived in the wake of the fires. Monica Turner, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, has studied the forests in Yellowstone since 1988.

"The bottom line of our studies to date is there was tremendous resilience of the ecosystem with no management and no intervention at all," she told a Park Service conference on climate change.

But resiliency may no longer be the story in the forests.

A Department of Agriculture report predicts that the acreage burned by wildfires will double by 2050 to about 20 million acres annually. Another USDA report predicts that for every 1.8-degree temperature increase the earth experiences - expected by 2050 - the area burned in the western U.S. could quadruple.

"The largest issue we now face is how to adapt our management to anticipate climate-change impacts and to mitigate their potential effects," Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told Congress this year.

Frank Carroll was the chief spokesman for the Boise National Forest in 1988 and into the late 1990s. On Aug. 19, 1992, he was at a garden party in Eagle and saw the same kind of giant pyrocumulus cloud in the same area Boise residents saw last week.

The Foothills Fire, burning in the same area as this month's Pony and Elk Complex fires, grew to 100,000 acres in one day. Eventually 257,000 acres burned.

This year, Carroll watches the new fires burning in the same southwest and south-central Idaho forests and worries that the trees regenerated after the 1992 Foothills Fire haven't grown big enough to produce enough seed to grow a new forest.

Scientists also have watched as the drought conditions that followed the 1989 fires and decimated the forests around Lowman prevented many of the young Ponderosa pines that were replanted to grow. If the Northern Rockies continue to get drier and hotter, as climate scientists predict, fires will return more quickly, said Turner. Drier climates and more frequent fires could make it impossible for more forests to ever bounce back.

Those forests could change dramatically - even turn into grasslands and brush. Carroll, now a forestry consultant, long pushed logging and thinning of forests as a way to make Idaho's forests more resilient.

While he can point to successes on the Boise National Forest, where thinning has reduced fire intensity, he now believes that the large fuel loads in the forests and the size and frequency of fires may overcome on a landscape scale anything managers can do.

He recommends people do what they can: make their homes firewise and create defensible space for firefighters.

"You can't do anything about the Boise Range, but you can do something about your backyard," said Carroll.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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