A larger percentage of Yellowstone National Park burned this summer than in any year since 1988, and the wildfires in the region have racked up bills that ran well into the tens of millions of dollars.
As the wildfire season appears to be winding down, a look back shows that the Cliff Creek, Lava Mountain and Berry fires and another handful of wildfires in Yellowstone altogether charred more than 130,000 acres — an area larger than Yellowstone and Jackson lakes combined.
In Yellowstone, where more than 62,000 acres of the park ignited, the primary factor was wildfire fuels — downed trees, vegetation and other forest litter — that were nearly as dry as they get.
“The driver here was how dry it was, though we weren’t quite as dry as in 1988,” Yellowstone staff fire ecologist Roy Rankin said. “The level of dryness that we achieved was in 97, 98th percentile, not the 99th percentile like in ’88.”
Rankin pointed out that the historic fire season of 1988 burned more than an order of magnitude more ground than this year’s batch of wildfires. The final tally for the fires 28 years ago was nearly 794,000 acres burned — more than a third of the park’s total area — compared with less than 3 percent this year.
The wildfire season of 2003, Rankin said, is much more comparable to 2016 than ’88 in terms of drought and acreage burned.
A relatively normal snowpack that melted off slowly and a June that brought some precipitation made for a slow start to this year’s fire season. But by mid-July a paucity of wetting rainstorms had left litter on the forest floors easily ignitable.
A lightning bolt that struck the mountainside over Cliff Creek the afternoon of July 17 produced a fire that swiftly ran over a densely timbered ridgeline, jumped the highway and the Hoback River and proceeded to run 3 miles in the next two days.
When all was said and done, the 54-square-mile Cliff Creek Fire burned down only a pole barn, but commanded a robust response to protect homes up Granite Creek and on the outskirts of Bondurant.
At peak staffing levels more than 500 firefighters and an array of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters fought back the wildfire, which burned all the way to the rock high on the south end of the Gros Ventre Range.
In time for most hunting seasons, the Cliff Creek Fire closure area was lifted last week. The final expense of the fire, most of which will be footed by the U.S. Forest Service, is expected to be $17 million, Bridger-Teton National Forest fire prevention education specialist Nan Stinson said.
On the east side of Togwotee Pass, the lightning-lit Lava Mountain Fire flared up the last week of July after smoldering for weeks. Topping out at 23 square miles, the blaze burned by numerous ranches, right up to Highway 26/287 and through portions of the well-developed Union Pass Road and other subdivisions.
No structures were lost, but more than 900 residents were directed to evacuate, and near peak staffing levels 750 firefighters, a half a dozen helicopters and 55 engines were trying to herd the wildfire away from the built environment.
Shoshone National Forest officials did not return phone calls Monday and Tuesday to provide a recap of the fire and report its final expense.
Near Jackson Hole, the Berry Fire was the last big blaze that fire managers had to deal with.
Among the first large wildfires within an ’88 fire scar, the 33-square-mile Berry Fire first burned with moderate activity for weeks on the remote west shore of Jackson Lake. Five straight hours of 15 to 20 mph winds on Aug. 23 changed that behavior, and in short order the wildfire jumped the northern tip of the lake and crossed over and shut down the highway, severing Jackson Hole’s direct route to Yellowstone.
The big run repeated itself Sept. 11, when a front carrying even stronger winds pushed the Berry Fire 6 miles in six hours, right up to the buildings at Flagg Ranch, back across the highway and all the way to the south border of Yellowstone.
The final cost for the Berry Fire is approaching $9 million. Fire information officer Jake Brollier anticipates that tab won’t go up too much more, as cooler fall temperatures and higher humidity have caused the wildfire to die down since the push to the north 10 days ago.
“We would have to have a long period of significant warming and drying for it to really get a chance to get up and move again,” Brollier said. “But I can tell you with certainty that we’re not putting the fire out until the snow falls.”
Within Yellowstone, the large Fawn, Maple, Buffalo and Central fires were joined by a smattering of small fires that burned a few acres or less this summer. Similarly, small blazes, both from lightning and unattended campfires, were regular occurrences in Jackson Hole.
All told, the Yellowstone fires cost about $10.5 million to manage, an expense that is entirely incurred by the National Park Service and isn’t expected to grow much going forward, fire information officer Dave Schmitt said.
“We’re talking about wrapping up a lot of the work this week,” Schmitt said Tuesday. “We’re supposed to be getting rain here [today] and Thursday, and if that comes about it’ll be pretty well wound down.”
To Rankin, Yellowstone’s 2016 fire season provided another learning opportunity that adds to the body of knowledge about wildfire ecology and behavior.
“This is my 37th fire season in the park,” Rankin said, “and each one brings some new twist of what we think we know about fire in these landscapes.”