ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 4-15-18):KATE SNOW: At least two people are dead, hundreds of homes have been evacuated.
NARRATION: Every year, the U.S. experiences an average of 72,000 wildfires, and theyre becoming larger and more destructive.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 12-5-17):ANCHOR: The fire has burned more than 50,000 acres and destroyed more than 150 structures.
NARRATION : Increasingly, wildfires affect populated areas. But 30 years ago, it was a huge fire in the wilderness that stoked media attention and a political controversy.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, EVENING NEWS, 9-7-88):DAN RATHER: Part of our national heritage is under threat and on fire tonight.
NARRATION: In the summer of 1988, wildfires burned through nearly a third of Yellowstone National Park.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, NIGHTLY NEWS, 9-7-88):TOM BROKAW: Our oldest national park is under siege tonight.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, WORLD NEWS TONIGHT, 9-7-88):PETER JENNINGS: The President to declare Yellowstone National Park a national disaster area.
NARRATION: Robert Barbee, the superintendent of Yellowstone, saw nothing ominous when lightning ignited a series of fires in June. It was just the beginning of another fire season.
ROBERT BARBEE (1935-2016): We were gratified at first. We thought well, you know, fire needs to be brought back into the system. And so little fires began to spring up.
NARRATION: Since 1972, the park service had allowed naturally-caused fires to burn out on their own.
JOHN VARLEY (CHIEF OF RESEARCH FOR YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, 1983-1993): There was a confidence in the natural resource area, that we knew what to expect, and we knew what we were doing when we got a fire.
NARRATION: That confidence was built on computer models constructed from years of data that precisely told park officials when to let natural fires burn, and when to put them out. But by mid-July, park officials realized the fires were not burning as predicted, but spreading at astonishing rate.
ROBERT BARBEE: All the models that had existed prior to 1988 went out the window in 1988. The fire just went right through everything.
JOHN VARLEY: Those fires were moving at a speed that was unprecedented. And its scary.
NARRATION: On July 21st, Barbee changed tactics and gave the order to fight every fire. But the decision did little to slow the flames as firefighters were overwhelmed. By July 27th, the fires had devoured nearly 100,000 acres more than double the total acreage burned in Yellowstone since 1972.And the story became national news.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 7-27-88):DAN RATHER: The flames of July.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 7-26-88):GARY SHEPPERD: Eleven fires are now burning in this two million acre park.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 7-26-88):CONNIE CHUNG: and theyre being called the worst fires in the park has ever seen.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 7-27-88):DONALD HODEL: Hi, Im Don Hodel.
NARRATION: President Reagan sent in his Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 7-27-88):DONALD HODEL: Any fires that start now are subject to being fought.
DONALD HODEL (SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR, 1985-1989): When a crisis gets big enough the President of the United States has to show that he cares about it. Now, I couldnt do anything about the fire. The President couldnt do anything about the fire. But if the President hadnt been briefed on it, it wouldve been easy for his critics to say well he doesnt care about the fire. Well, its not true. So there was a photo op, and he did what the president was expected to do in that kind of a crisis.
NARRATION: The nation watched as fires continued to burn, impervious to the hundreds of firefighters now at the park, digging firelines, setting backfires, and strafing flaming forests with retardant.
DONALD HODEL: Virtually every spark that blew ahead of the fire started another fire. So we couldnt put firefighters out in front of it, all you could do was bombard it from the air.
ROBERT BARBEE: People dont really understand the nature of wildfire. Even people that live nearby. They do after theyve been through it a time or two. I mean, its a tremendous force. And its like, well why dont you just put it out? Well why dont you just stop the hurricane or the tornado? You dont just put it out.
NARRATION: After fierce winds fanned the flames and burned 168,000 acres on August 20th, Superintendent Barbee became the public face the parks biggest disaster.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 8-22-88):ROGER ONEIL: Yellowstone Park Superintendent Bob Barbee denies fire crews waited too long.ROBERT BARBEE: Theres absolutely nothing humanly possible that couldve been done.
ROBERT BARBEE: Someone has to be the target, and specifically yours truly was the target. I kept hoping maybe Qaddafi would do something outrageous, but he didnt. So they all came to Yellowstone.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, NIGHTLY NEWS, 9-8-88):TOM BROKAW: The fires have destroyed 1 million acres in and around the park.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, WORLD NEWS TONIGHT, 9-6-88):PETER JENNINGS: These are the worst wildfires in the Yellowstone are in this century.
NARRATION: The assault on park officials picked up in early September, when the fires bore down on a national icon, the Old Faithful Inn.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, NIGHTLY NEWS, 9-7-88):TOM BROKAW: There are a lot of angry people who believe that the national park service is responsible, that it let the fires burn too freely for too long.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, EVENING NEWS, 9-8-88):DAN RATHER: President Reagan moved to deal with a firestorm of protest over his administrations let it burn policy.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 7-27-88):JERRY BOWEN: Area ranchers said the let it burn attitude makes no sense
ROBERT BARBEE: Somehow the media coined the term let it burn. Thats not our term. That was not our term. It was their term, the flawed policy that the National Park Service rode to hell.
NARRATION: The flood of pictures and reports told a convincing story. But that tale was incomplete, according to Conrad Smith, who studied the coverage. It showed little understanding of the parks natural fire policy.
CONRAD SMITH (PROFESSOR OF JOURNALISM, UNIVERSITY OF WYOMING): The policy got almost no coverage except being mentioned in passing as the let it burn policy implying that the Park Service, like Nero, fiddled while the park burned down.
NARRATION: American fire policy doesnt lend itself to sound bites because of its long and complicated history. After the Big Burn of 1910 destroyed some 3 million acres across the Northwest, federal officials suppressed every fire as soon as it started, and eventually drove that idea home with one cuddly little bear.
(AUDIO OF SMOKY THE BEAR SONG):With a rangers hat and shovel in a pair of dungar-ees, you will find him in the forest always sniffing at the breeze.
NARRATION: Smokey Bears message on fire prevention resonated with the public, while tons of underbrush quietly piled up across the countrys national parks, setting the stage for huge fires. To reduce the dangerous buildup, park officials shifted tactics in 1972 to let naturally-caused fires burn themselves out, but by 1988, only about 30,000 acres of the 2.2 million-acre park had burned.
ALSTON CHASE (AUTHOR, PLAYING GOD IN YELLOWSTONE): Every year the area in the park thats not burned adds the equivalent of 300 gallons of gasoline per acre.
NARRATION: That left tons of underbrush in Yellowstone untouched, and, after an extremely dry summer, highly flammable.
ROBERT BARBEE: When you get all those variables, and then you get the wind, and it happens rarely, but its the perfect storm.
NARRATION: After three months, the Yellowstone fires ended as they began, with an act of nature.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 6-26-98):REPORTER: What an army of firefighters hundreds of aircraft and $120 million couldnt do, a quarter inch of snow did, on September 11th.
NARRATION: Throughout the summer of 1988, a recurring theme in the Yellowstone coverage was that the park was gone forever.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 9-9-88):ROGER ONEIL: This is whats left of Yellowstone tonight.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 9-8-88):WOMAN: They keep telling me its history but I would rather see it as it was.
NARRATION: But no sooner were the fires out, than the coverage shifted to a more upbeat note.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 11-20-88):ANCHOR: The wondrous process of renewal there, has already begun.ROBERT BARBEE: Its all here. Its alive and well.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, NIGHTLY NEWS, 4-2-89):TOM BROKAW: Now a new season is at hand.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 5-26-89):BOB MCNAMARA: The first fragile signs of new life amid the ashes of last years Yellowstone fires. Buttercups, Mountain Dandelions, and a newborn bison calf.
NARRATION: But the reported surprise of the parks rebirth was hardly news to park officials like Varley, who understood what was happening even as the fires raged during that long, hot summer.
JOHN VARLEY: We knew from all of the studies that there was nothing to fear ecologically from fire. Every plant had a strategy built into its genetics to help it survive. The most famous of course is the lodgepole pine, which has these wonderful cones that require fire to open them. And when 80% of the park is lodgepole pine then you can conclude that its been putting up with fire for millennia.
NARRATION: In many ways, the 1988 fires ushered in the modern era of fire management as they dramatized that fire belonged in Yellowstone and in any forest just like the trees, streams, and bison. Indeed, letting some fires burn is absolutely crucial to reducing the threat of wildfires. But, today, the explosion of house building in wilderness areas in the west has created a whole new set of challenges. Letting some fires burn is not an option near populated areas. That allows underbrush to build up – one factor that has made the spread of wildfires once again a summer staple on the evening news.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 1-10-18):ANCHOR: The Thomas Fire, the biggest in California history.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 10-18-17):REPORTER: Right now, 150 homes are under evacuation orders today.
NARRATION: Finding solutions to reduce wildfires, while accommodating people, homes, and recreational places, wont be easy.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 12-8-17):DANIELLE NOTTINGHAM: Nerves are wearing thin for residents anxious to see if their homes are still standing.
ARCHIVAL (KRON 10-10-17):ANCHOR: Its been an emotional 24 hours for communities in the north bay as families watch their belongings turn to ash.
NARRATION: In Yellowstone it will take two to three hundred years for the lodgepole pine trees to grow back to their full height. Meanwhile, the parks fire policy is virtually the same as it was in 1988: naturally-caused fires are allowed to burn, so long as they dont threaten lives or property. The park still relies on computer models but they are considerably more robust. They can run a variety of scenarios in much shorter time.
ROBERT BARBEE: Fires important. It is as important as sunshine and rain. The forest ensemble that is present in the greater Yellowstone is there not in spite of fire but because of fire.