Giving Visitors a New Perspective on the Role of Fire in Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park hosts visitors from across the United States and all over the world. One can stand by the fire information board at the Mud Volcano area and hear a dozen languages spoken, as children, mothers and dads; grandparents, sweethearts and traveling companions take in the sights --and smells -- of the park’s thermal and geologic features.
Most of these visitors are curious about the current fires described on the fire information board. At this stage of the fire there is little smoke from most of the fires to draw visitors' attention, but sharing a map of the park’s fire history is a perfect opportunity to inform visitors about fire’s role in the natural environment.
Some visitors are very certain that the burned trees they see amid the new growth is a reason to be sad. “I feel so bad,” said one visitor, “because I saw the park before the 1988 fires and it was so beautiful. I wanted my grandchildren to see it like that.” This is an opening that a fire information officer can’t pass up. The right message can turn the sadness to acceptance and understanding.
“Oh, I didn’t know that!” is the recurring response when folks learn that lodgepole pine, which make up a significant percentage of the park’s forests, can only reproduce when their seeds are released from their cones by the heat of a fire. Many visitors inquire if the dense, young forests they see growing around the black, spindly remnants of previous fires have been planted by park rangers. They are surprised to learn that the young trees are the same size because they were all born (seeded) from the cones dropped by the parent trees after the same fire. And then they understand that lightning-caused fires are a natural part of the park’s ecosystem.
For decades forestry experts believed that all fire was bad and suppressed all fires that started in the park. This invited the catastrophic fires of 1988. Now forest ecologists know that Infrequent but high intensity fires cause wide-spread damage and can even sterilize soil for generations. More frequent, lower intensity fires make the forest a healthy, vibrant and inviting habitat for diverse plants and animals. So now fires are managed to protect visitor safety and park infrastructure (point protection) but otherwise are allowed to play their vital role in the park’s natural environment.
“Do the fires go out by themselves?” many people ask when they find out that firefighters don’t suppress, contain or put out naturally caused fires. Yes and no. The weather changes as we get closer to fall. There is less heat from the sun as it slides south. This means the mid-day burning periods get shorter. Often there are more clouds and short periods of daily rain on parts of the park which also helps keep the fire activity at a lower level. So while fires still need careful monitoring, many will continue to smolder until long after deep snow covers the park roads, hillsides and canyons.
The reward for providing fire information in Yellowstone National Park is the moment when visitors look at the smoke curling from a hillside and smile, seeing it as a promise for the future instead of as a reason for sadness or fear.