“Part of our national heritage is under threat and on fire tonight.”
That was how CBS’s Dan Rather described the fires raging through Yellowstone National Park in 1988 but it was only part of the story.
The continuing narrative that summer was that park officials had negligently let the fires burn out of control and destroyed the legendary national park, which had supplied generations of visitors with fond memories and colorful snapshots.
But the story that played out on national television was incomplete. Until the 1970s, fire policy had called for putting out every forest fire as soon as it started, creating tons of underbrush in Yellowstone – and in parks across the nation. And that underbrush had set the stage for raging wildfires. When federal officials shifted fire policy in 1972 to allow for naturally-caused fires to burn themselves out, and, hopefully, reduce potentially deadly build up of underbrush, it turned out to be too little too late. It failed to make a dent in the thousands of acres of dry underbrush that ignited in Yellowstone during the summer of 1988, the summer that gave everyone an education in fire.