What Happens When.................?


We naturally think of escaping a wildfire from a human perspective.  Animals use senses of sight, smell, and hearing that are often more perceptive than we can imagine.  Different species choose to fly away from fire, or run away, waddle away, swim away, slither away or hop away. Some will bury themselves in the dirt until the flames pass. Only one species expects fire to listen up and meet our demands . . .   humans.

Before it comes to a race to safety, animals in the wild are almost always aware of a fire growing nearby, because their ancestors were used to more frequent fires.  Even in calm winds, small flames give many signals to wildlife, including sounds and smells.  Escape from a wildfire is easy for most animals that can travel.  The percentage of large animals such as deer and bear that die from wildfires is so low that scientists have a difficult time measuring their numbers.   Unburned areas continue to provide their food until fire spots green up after rain.

When about 700,000 acres burned in the Park in 1988, only about 300 larger animals perished, or about one in two thousand acres.  Most large animals move temporarily and successfully.  The most vulnerable animals are very young, old or injured animals, as well as species which nest near the surface of the ground, and may lose that habitat.  In Yellowstone, chipmunks, for example, den on top of the soil.  Lots of their habitat remains, though, in unburned patches within a fire.

What is clear to scientists is that many animal and plant species depend upon fire for their survival.   Some important insects find freshly burned trees irresistible for laying their eggs in.  Yellowstone insects and the birds and animals that eat bugs will thrive in the variety of fire effects in their habitats.

So do animals need our help escaping from wildfires? Not at all.  It is up to all of us, though, to take care of our precious public lands, and the amazing creatures that live there.      


Rain itself will not put out a wildfire.  In Yellowstone, even an inch of rain cannot prevent smoke and then flames a week later.  Almost every fire requires “boots on the ground” workers who grunt and sweat to mix water into hot embers and burning roots under old stumps.  Summer rain is often very local, pouring on one hill while entirely missing the next ridge.  Rain or morning dew often wets only the surface, where dust returns after noon.

Likewise, aircraft do not extinguish or contain any fire without the assistance of firefighters.  Water and fire retardant only take some of the heat away from an intensely burning section of a wildfire, so that firefighters can more safely enter the area to work on the ground. 

Wildfires are similar to campfires.  Pouring a bucketful onto a campfire does not extinguish it: water runs sideways across the ground and hot cinders lurk untouched.  Firefighters do not have confidence that hot areas have cooled until they “cold trail.” They put the backs of their ungloved hands near embers and burnt material that they have mixed with soil or water to assure that no heat remains.

Firefighters base some of their plans and tactics on the forecast likelihood of snow or long, slow cold rains.  Long-term precipitation or widespread snow is called a “season-ending event,” when firefighters may finally have confidence that the fire will not return.  In Yellowstone, that season-ender may come in August or as late as October.  Most years that precipitation arrives in mid-September.


We bring sufficient forces to each fire to “do what needs to be done,” to accomplish the goals of land managers, called management objectives, for that fire.

When the scope of fires taxes the local employees, the Park brings in a team, a skilled veteran group of wildfire professionals to manage the fire.  The team helps to assemble, guide and support the forces necessary to protect developed areas such as buildings or power lines.  When historic buildings may be threatened, firefighters may create defensible “indirect” lines, which are closer to developed areas than to the fire itself. They might need to use fire themselves along their lines to burn out, to stop the larger fire from reaching prized parts of the Park.

Once they’ve planned and prepared for the potential growth of a fire, and actively defended threatened areas, a team leaves an incident.  They hand responsibility for protecting the neighborhood back to the agency that invited them.  Thus the National Park Service continues to keep tabs on the fires and any new fires that start before the snow flies.  If several days of hot, windy weather return and predict increased fire activity, managers again bring in additional firefighters to be prepared to respond.


Coming into the Park from Cody in the east, travelers crest Sylvan Pass, then descend into valleys full of standing black toothpicks with little 3-foot tall seedlings underneath.  These 10-year-old lodgepole pine offspring were born in the 2003 East Fire.

Through the south and west entrances, roads wind through forests of young lodgepoles whose parents were lost in the epic wildfires of 1988.  These 25-year-old teenaged trees are about 15 feet tall, and stand in dense thickets of rich green.

Firefighters are careful to use MIST, or “minimum impact suppression tactics,” working in Yellowstone.  They do not build fireline at all unless they are protecting developed areas.  When they do complete work that changes the landscape, such as widening a powerline corridor or clearing a fuel break by removing vegetation, they later rehabilitate that work by trying to lessen the impact of their work on the land.  Firefighters return to fluff up compacted soil.  However, they do not plant new trees.  Even in areas that burned unusually severely, nature takes care of that.

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