Text Size

Landsat Top 10: A Searing Summer - Yellowstone National Park Historic Fires of 1988

In 1988, fire transformed Yellowstone National Park into an apparent wasteland. Landsat captured the burn scars from the fires and watched the progress of the forest's recovery. (Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA's Earth Observatory)
› Download this video in broadcast quality from NASA Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio

Continental U.S. locator map showing Yellowstone National Park Yellowstone National Park—the world’s first national park created in 1872—was transformed into an apparent wasteland during the three months of summer 1988 when it seemed that its beauty, and carefully legislated and shepherded legacy, would all go up in smoke.

On June 14, 1988, just north of the park boundary, a small fire started on Storm Creek. Then, more fires started, sparked by both lightning and humans, and they multiplied and merged: Shoshone Fire, Fan Fire, Red Fire, Lava Fire, Mink Fire, Clover Fire, North Fork Fire, Hellroaring Fire, Huck Fire.

Eyewitnesses described mushroom clouds roiling above the trees. The fires kept growing until they doubled in size. What weather created—historic drought that produced the conditions, which allowed fire to thrive—only weather could quell. Despite the efforts of 25,000 people fighting the fire, at a cost of $120 million—the largest fire-fighting effort in United States history up to that time—it was not until rain and snow began to fall on September 11 that the fires' rampage through the Yellowstone area was stopped.

Shrouded in smoke, firefighters in yellow shirts and helmets work to bury smaller flames among the scrub covering a hilltop.

A group of firefighters putting out brush fire during the 1988 Yellowstone fires. Credit: National Park Service/Jim Peaco
› Larger image

oases of green pines, bordered by dead brown trees amid rivers of blackened trunks covering most of a mountainside.

Bunsen Peak after the 1988 fires shows patches of surviving trees. Credit: National Park Service/Jim Peaco
› Larger image

young green pine trees juxtaposed against a forest of dead gray trunks

Taken ten years after the fires in 1998, young lodgpole pines grow in a stand of dead and burned trees. Credit: National Park Service/Jim Peaco
› Larger image

Why did these fires burn on such a massive scale? A look at the Landsat images provides a significant clue. In the first image of the sequence, from 1987 before the fires started, a very obvious vertical line can be seen near the left edge of the frame. That left edge represents a real boundary on the landscape that is the result human activities and land management policies.

To the left (west) of the park boundary, land has been managed for multiple purposes, including clear-cutting of forests for timber production. To the right of the boundary, the park has been managed for preservation. The dark green represents thick forests that were protected from logging, but also, according to earlier philosophies of management that prevailed over much of the twentieth century, protected from fire. Decades of fire suppression, historic drought and a significant number of lightning strikes created the conditions that allowed the massive conflagration that, when all was said and done, burned or scorched nearly 2 million acres.

Though people fear it, fire is a human disaster, not an ecological one. Fire—even one as intense and widespread as the one that burned the Yellowstone area in 1988—is a natural process. Ecosystems will, given time, recover.

In the recent satellite era, Landsat images have contributed to the field of fire science, helping researchers understand fire danger, wildfire behavior, and the effects of wildfire on a landscape. Satellite data has become a tool for identifying different fuels, such as grasses, shrubs, and trees, which burn at different temperatures and are consumed by fire at different speeds, and whether they are lush or tinder dry. Knowing what is on the landscape can help managers anticipate a slow, creeping fire, a fast-racing grass fire, or an intense, crown fire that torches trees.

Satellite imagery also aids scientists' understanding of how the land recovers. Able to capture reflected light characteristic of charred areas, shown in red in the time-lapse animation above, Landsat has shown scientists where grasses and saplings are growing on the burn scars of the 1988 fires.

"The fires profoundly affected the ecology of the park, and still to this day, as you can see in the images, the imprint of the fire remains. The recovery is certainly going to take decades if not centuries to actually occur," says NASA Landsat project scientist Jeff Masek at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

NASA and the U.S. Department of the Interior through the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) jointly manage Landsat, and the USGS preserves a 40-year archive of Landsat images that is freely available over the Internet. The next Landsat satellite, now known as the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) and later to be called Landsat 8, is scheduled for launch in 2013.

Related Links

› NASA's Earth Observatory: 'Burn Recovery in Yellowstone'

Lisa-Natalie Anjozian
NASA's Earth Science News Team