Plants regrow among trees burned in the 1988 fires in Yellowstone. (Photo courtesy Daniel Tinker)
Plants regrow among trees burned in the 1988 Yellowstone fires. (Photo courtesy Daniel Tinker — click to enlarge)

Burned areas from 1988 Yellowstone fires aid research

By Kelsey Dayton
— September 10, 2013

It was the driest summer on record. The first fire began June 14, 1988, just outside Yellowstone National Park on Storm Creek. It was a small start to what would become an infamous year of fire that would burn until mid-September when snow would help extinguish the flames. More than 50 fires would ignite in Yellowstone that summer impacting 793,880 acres or 36 percent of the park.

The cold fronts pushed through one after another only bringing wind and lightning.

Kelsey Dayton
Kelsey Dayton

“The weather was horrendous, or perfect depending on how you look at it, for fires,” said Daniel Tinker, associate professor in the University of Wyoming Department of Botany and Program Ecology.

While it’s easy to first see the fires as destructive, they also created an incredible opportunity — a chance for long-term studies of everything from insects to wildlife to water to look at how a big fire like the 1988 blazes changes the landscape beyond the obvious charred tree skeletons.

“Yellowstone is sort of the perfect laboratory for it because it’s so large,” Tinker said.

Yellowstone, as a National Park, had little human impact compared to most forests. There were few roads and the park wasn’t logged heavily like many national forests. The park’s landscape gave an unusual opportunity to see how fires burn naturally and how the ecosystem responds.

It also is providing a chance to predict how fires will burn the area in the future.

While researchers are required to obtain permits to work in Yellowstone National Park, it’s hard to know how many projects are linked directly to the 1988 fires, said park spokesman Al Nash. There are hundreds of projects linked to fire ecology and impacts and a search for work with “1988 fires” specifically in a reports title yielded studies on coyotes, recolonization of lichen and mosses, insect response, and whitebark pine regeneration.

Researchers work in areas regrowing after the 1988 fires. (Photo courtesy Daniel Tinker)
Researchers work in areas regrowing after the 1988 fires. (Photo courtesy Kellen Nelson )

Tinker’s work, which includes years of data collection from the park — some of which has already been published — will eventually incorporate the use of a supercomputer to show how forests respond and regenerate after a fire, how the landscape changes over time and how it could burn again. The three-dimensional fire simulations will show how these young forests might burn and how that is different from old forests.

While there had been major fires before, the ones in Yellowstone erupted at a time when fire science was changing, Tinker said. Policy began to include suppression tactics like prescribed burns and there was more interest in understanding fire behavior than just simply putting out the flames. Scientists saw the 1988 fires as a chance to look at the consequences of fire on the landscape and collect some of the first baseline data from a long term study of a natural event and its impact on forest regrowth.

Tinker joined a study team in 1991 that began research the year after the fire collecting data on 2500 square meter plots.

They measured biodiversity, nutrient cycling and productivity of the plots, returning almost every year to re-measure until 2001 and then going back in 2012 and 2013.

Some trees are regenerating up to 50 trees per square meter, which is incredibly dense, Tinker said. Other stands are coming back significantly thinner. And there are stand with everything in between, Tinker said.

Researchers also found little of the wood on the ground burned- in some areas only 8 percent.

“That was a big surprise to us,” Tinker said.

The biodiversity also intrigued researchers. Most stands had big jumps in the number of species counted in 1999 compared to 2012.

“We’re just astounded at the plant biodiversity,” Tinker said.

There hasn’t been much work done following a 25-year-old forest from the start. So while they knew biodiversity would increase, they didn’t know at what rate and for how long. Same with productivity of the tree stands, or how much the trees grow each year.

The research is providing one of the first long-term data sets, Tinker said. It is also providing a way to predict how future fires could burn.

In 2011, scientist Tony Westerling published data predicting major fires, like those in 1988, used to occur every 100 to 300 years, but by mid-century could occur every 30 years. That study used data in Yellowstone up to 1999 and large landscape modeling.

Tinker and his graduate student, Kellen Nelson, will use the supercomputer to look at each stand of trees and all the variables, like how the wind changes and how far apart the trees are in each stand.

Each stand is a little different so the computer evaluates each individually showing how a fire would burn through it.

The modeling shows what will happen under different fire conditions using the specifics collected by the researchers, like how much fuel is on the surface and the height of the trees.

Researchers collect data on forest regrowth  in Yellowstone National Park. (Photo courtesy Daniel Tinker)
Researchers collect data on forest regrowth in Yellowstone National Park during the summer of 2012. (Photo courtesy Natalie Kaner)

Tinker said he isn’t trying to disprove Westerling, who used sound science and research, but he’s trying to take it a step farther incorporating more recent data and more variables specific to each stand to see how fire would react at the stand level.

“We don’t know if it can burn every 30 years,” Tinker said.

Current fire models look at the whole landscape and don’t account for variations from stand-to-stand  in variables like foliage moisture levels or bulk density levels or the wind that blows between two trees.  

“It doesn’t get down into the weeds where the fire actually burns,” he said.

The computer modeling Tinker and Nelson will use can take two specific trees and incorporate the distance between them and the log on the ground. It takes into account how a moving fire front would dry out the trees in the stand and then how it would change as it moved into a different stand.

Tinker is going to run as many different scenarios as possible to see how fire behavior varies in different conditions and forest densities.

They are constantly resampling the plots and looking at how productivity, or the amount of biomass a tree adds through growing a thicker trunk and more needles, changes over time.

The data can show on average how much the trees are changing, and that data can help predict the landscape productivity and show the recoverability of the forests without human intervention.

“It’s telling us a lot about the natural and inherent resilience of these stands,” Tinker said. “And that directly relates to management. We can begin to ask questions about if restoration of all the forests out here is necessary.”

For a Park Service history of the 1988 Yellowstone fire season, click here

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at Follower her on twitter @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. Though I agree Yellowstone is a good laboratory due to it’s size, i disagree the scale of the fires in 1988 were the result of an area that had not had previous forest management. Given the same weather conditions seen in the summer of 1988 and the strategic approach taken by park officials that year, any number of our national forests in Wyoming could burn equally as dramatically today. Fire suppression has occurred continuously in Yellowstone since its inception as it has on other federal forest lands. The reason for the large scale fires beginning in the mid-80’s is not logging, it is the removal of natural fire from the system through suppression. Rx fire and sound forest management is needed to bring things back into balance.